It's taken a few years, but Portland is finally back to living up to its nickname as Soccer City USA. In fact, it's become the hottest place for soccer in the nation.
A lot of the heat is due to the surge in the Portland Timbers, who under Coach Caleb Porter have gone from one of the worst teams in Major League Soccer to one of the best in a single season.
But it's the new team in town, the Portland Thorns, that hark back to the grassroots origins of the city's soccer insanity.
In their inaugural National Women's Soccer League season, the Thorns appear headed for the playoffs and now stand at No. 2 in the eight-team league. Their popularity is unrivaled: Average attendance at Thorns home games is 12,797—nearly three times that of the next highest team.
And their evolving style on the field has kept fans guessing.
The Thorns' ability earlier in the season to dominate opponents easily has been thwarted as other coaches figure out how to break down Thorns Coach Cindy Parlow Cone's style of play: a direct, possession-based approach.
The result has been fewer goals and fewer wins in recent games, making the season's final stretch all the more suspenseful.
The Thorns have three more home games this season at Jeld-Wen Field, including two against teams—FC Kansas City and Sky Blue FC—that are competing with them for the league's top spot.
If you're a Thorns regular—or someone who has not caught the team in action yet—here's what to watch for as they hunt the championship.
Morgan, a star on the U.S. national women's team, is one of the fastest players in the league and scores often on breakaways (watch for through-balls from Sinclair and midfielder Allie Long).
Sinclair, a Canadian national star, has been an attacking midfielder this season, making the all-important creative decisions that allow Morgan and others to score goals. She's now been moved forward alongside Morgan as a striker, giving her even more chances to score.
The Thorns' latest strategic success is due in large part to the arrival of
, the attacking midfielder for the U.S. national women's team who until now has been finishing out her commitment to Paris Saint-Germain of the French professional women's league.
In seven appearances for her French side, Heath scored two goals, which is pretty good for a midfielder. That said, Heath might not cure what ails the Thorns' current system. Heath is known for generating plays that set up scoring chances for others—more of a possession style than the long-ball approach the Thorns seem to be developing.
"Heath allows the team to finally stretch the attacking impetus into the final third [of the field]," says John Nyen, who blogs for the Rose City Riveters, the Thorns' supporters group. "There is the potential that Heath won't be able to affect the game as much as Thorns fans would believe."
The Thorns' "supersub," as she's labeled by fans, is Danielle Foxhoven. She has scored three goals (ranking her behind only Morgan and Sinclair) while starting only one game this season.
Cone tends to unleash Foxhoven in the second half on the front line when the Thorns needs a late goal or a sense or urgency.
"Danielle injects energy back into the match, constantly putting pressure on the opposing back line," says Anthony Thurston of RoseCitySoccerPress.com. "She really could be starting for many NWSL teams this year."
The question for the team is whether Foxhoven should play a larger role as the fight for the playoffs tightens.
Shim doesn't yet have the scoring chops of Morgan or Sinclair—she's scored two goals, including one July 14 against Western New York Flash—but she has a natural sense for knowing where to be during an attack. "Shim always seems to be at the right place at the right time," Braeback says.
The Thorns have failed to find their scoring edge in recent matches, and the defense has sometimes faltered under increasing pressure and the confidence shown by opponents.
That has forced goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc to make some truly outrageous and heroic saves. Witness her clutch stop July 14 of a late-game penalty kick by Western New York Flash forward (and U.S. national women's team star) Abby Wambach. The save preserved a 1-1 tie.
While it's not necessarily a good thing to see your team's goalkeeper need to make those kinds of saves—it underscores that the defense is having issues—it has brought LeBlanc, also goalkeeper for the Canadian national team, deserved attention. She was named the league's player of the week in June.
And she may be the key to whether the Thorns' amazing first season ends early, or takes them to the finals. As Thurston of RoseCitySoccerPress.com, writes, âKarina has kept us in games we had no business being in.â
Geoff Gibson is the managing editor of StumptownFooty.com.
GO: The Portland Thorns' next home match is against the Chicago Red Stars on Sunday, July 28, at 4 pm at Jeld-Wen Field.