The power of the night, the press of the storm,Robert Browning – Prospice
The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go:
Today we discuss those Thorns whose time among us was troubled.
Troubled on the pitch, and, perhaps, off of it , as well. Sometimes the trouble seemed to emanate from them, sometimes it simply circled around them…but, regardless of the source, their time here was fraught, and that is how we remember them. Some of them seemed to linger here at the edge of breaking through, others passed briefly through our memories full of woe, but all of them left behind some flavor of lingering regret.
Some we’ve already talked about. Mana Shim was deeply loved but we know now was troubled by bipolar disorder, had to fight hard to stay on the pitch and, finally, was unable to succeed. Others, like Vero, or Ano, just couldn’t adapt to life in the NWSL or to the team or to Portland and, after short outings here, left in an incomplete and dissatisfying fashion.
Then there are some who just had straightforward miserable luck with injuries – we will talk about one today – like Meg Morris, who in a single tackle went from promising to punished and was forced to retire because of it.
But of all the troubled players we’ve seen here perhaps one of the most puzzling was Danielle Foxhoven.
Foxhoven was a standout player for University of Portland from 2008 to 2011 as a forward, but her hopes of a quick move to a professional career were derailed when the WPS folded in 2012. Desperate for a paying gig, she signed with the Russian side Энергия Воронеж (Energy Voronezh) in 2012.
Perhaps you have to have been a Russian, or lived in Russia, to really understand what that means, but Foxhoven’s time with Voronezh was documented by Gwendolyn Oxenham’s Under The Lights and In The Dark and seems to have been at the same time dreary and horrific.
Those creepy things you’ve heard about sport and the lives of athletes in the former Soviet Union?
I’m going to stop for a moment to pitch the Oxenham book. If you’re a soccer fan, and, particularly, a fan of the women’s game (and if you’re here and you’re not…ummm…maybe you need to reflect on that for a moment…) you should get it and read it. It’s a wonderful collection of tales, all of them enthralling, and many of them pure delight.
Foxhoven’s isn’t, though. Her time in Russia sounds awful, so it must have seemed like the prison walls had fallen when she was signed as a discovery player for the new Portland NWSL team.
Instead it just added to her woes.
I suspect that if we remember the 2013 season beyond “we won!” we likely remember just the high points; the great characters like KK, the wild semifinal win, and then taking the championship match in Rochester through some Heath brilliance, Sinc finishing, and sturdy defending.
But we might not recall that the season leading up to to those games was really difficult, a year in which the team, sitting top of table in mid-May, dropped slowly and agonizingly out of the top two and almost out of the top three.
From late June to mid August the Thorns went 3-4-4 and slipped down to third in a tight playoff race (do you remember that the top three all ended up even on points, separated only by goals? I didn’t. And that the Thorns clung to just two points above Sky Blue, the fourth place club? Nope, me neither. That was one hell of a season…).
For that squad Foxhoven was a steady producer off the bench; 21 appearances, seven starts, four goals (fourth on the squad). But around her the team was visibly in trouble.
One of the low points of that late season slump came in a six-point loss in early August, when FC Kansas City came into Portland and whipped the Thorns 2-3 on a Lauren Holiday brace after Foxhoven had equalized in the 51st minute. But Holiday scored again, Kristi Mewis put in the dagger, and a late Morgan goal couldn’t draw the Thorns level.
After the match there was the famous interview.
If you watch the post-match presser at the link, at about 1:22 Foxhoven says that while the result was disappointing, “It’s not a lack of heart from most of our players…”. And again, at 2:43, she repeats “I think it was the same (that is, the same intensity) to the end for most of us.”
Finally, at 2:57, after she’d talked about how as a team the Thorns had felt desperate to win the match, a reporter asks her:
Q: “Do you think you saw that desperation from the team today?”
Foxhoven: “From most of us…most of us. Yeah.”
Q: “By “most of us”, what do you mean?”
Foxhoven: “I think that…ummm…in the last couple of minutes there was definitely…ummm…I think some of us were in that zone, some of us were pressing…and some of us just…weren’t there yet. And I think that’s…ummm…y’know, there’s been a little bit of separation in our team, and that’s kind of why we’ve struggled in the past. But I think we’ve collectively gotten better.”
As you can imagine, this set off an insane, wild explosion of curiosity, gossip, and speculation.
Who were “most of us” versus the players not “there yet”? Much of the speculation was that the ones who weren’t – and let’s be blunt, to say at the end of a critical match that some players “weren’t there” was to say “jakin’ it” – were some or most of the allocated players who were, relative to players like Foxhoven, making some bank out of the game.
If I recall correctly this was one of the earliest moments that Alex Morgan’s commitment to her NWSL club was questioned (but we’ll get to that later on). Coach Parlow Cone came in for some suspicion, too; had she let her squad break up into factions? How? Why? Was this why the team was underperforming?
Anyway…all of that swirled around the club as they entered the playoffs, and I suspect that even winning the championship didn’t dispel the troubles that were aired on that day in August.
The thing is…nobody really knows, outside that Thorns club, what those troubles were. What was going on inside that dressing room. Were there really destructive cliques on the team? Were some of the players genuinely unhappy, either because they thought that they were too good for this league and weren’t fully invested in the club, or because they felt that they were getting muled and their better-paid teammates weren’t? Or was this just the grumping of one disgruntled player? What was the problem, and could it be that Foxhoven was the problem, instead of her teammates?
Until and unless someone writes the inside story of that year, we’ll never know.
But whatever happened, that season was effectively the end for Foxhoven’s professional career. She was traded to Seattle in the offseason and appeared there only sparingly; three starts in twelve games in 2014, six games in 2015. No goals.
She was released at the end of the 2015 season and retired as a player.
After that she worked as a coach for a small midwest college for several years, but is now out of the sport and selling medical equipment.
I wish I knew what had happened. Was Foxhoven fired for whistleblowing? Or was she released because she was trouble in the locker room? Were her troubles her own, or the team’s?
Whatever the reason, I’ve always remembered her with regret. She was a classy, creative player, and one whose troubles here strike me as a poor reward for her long fight and hard work to play the game she loved.
I hope she’s selling a lot of knee braces.
Perhaps no player arrived here with a heavier burden than Alex Morgan.
It seems long ago and far away when Baby Horse was the living image of the U.S. women’s national team, and perhaps the single biggest name to run out in Thorns red that first season. But I still remember the resentment and furor from supporters of other NWSL clubs at what seemed like match-fixing by the federations; Sinclair AND Morgan to Portland?
Collusion! Conspiracy! Unfair! Robbery!
Clearly Merritt Paulson had the all the photos, and he had gotten his hooks into the league. He bagged us the biggest name in all of women’s soccer, and we would just stroll to the 2013 title.
So when the Thorns came out of the gate smoking hot – going 8-2-1 between April and mid-June – and Morgan scored five goals in those eleven games?
The whining from Chicago and Seattle and Kansas City and Rochester?
That shit was audible in space.
Then the slide began, the slide we’ve already discussed with Foxhoven. Morgan scored only three times over that stretch, injured her knee in the 12th minute in Boston, and was out for the remaining two games, sat the bench for the semifinal in Kansas City, and appeared only at the death in the Final; yes, to serve Sinclair the pass that put the match away but otherwise an asterisk.
That October she injured her ankle playing for the Nats and was out several weeks. Then she tried to return too quickly, reinjured the ankle, and was out again until early June of 2014. And that was a problem.
Because her return meant that Jessica McDonald was returned to the bench. McDonald had started the first eleven games and had been tearing up the league; she’d scored five times when Morgan returned to the lineup and the starting XI, she scored another six as a reserve after that as Morgan could only manage to knock in five as a starter.
McDonald was not happy: “I became a starter in Portland and then I lost my spot, but for what reason?” McDonald said. “It wasn’t explained to me. I thought it was unfair. Sometimes women’s soccer can be political.”
The politics continued through the off-season; after FCKC knocked the Thorns out in the semifinal Morgan stayed in Portland, McDonald was traded to Houston, and the bitterness of 2014 lingered into the woeful year of 2015.
As her on-pitch time shrank due to injuries and callups Morgan was cast as the villain, the rich, entitled national team Mean Girl who had managed to get the promising outsider fired. Concourse rumors flew that Morgan was the reason for Foxhoven’s complaint, had little interest in her club team, wanting out of Portland to be with her husband and playing here only because the Nats required it to keep her national team spot. That was when I recall hearing for the first time descriptions of her as “the Princess”.
Then came the World Cup in 2015.
Morgan played in Boston in April…and then was gone from the team until August. That season she played a total of only four games, three starts, and scored a single goal. She picked up an assist on the last day of the season, a loss in Rochester.
The disappearance of the Nats after the world title was particularly infuriating to the fans. The Thorns were getting hammered, were below the redline, but Morgan seemed disinterested, strolling through the “victory tour” tomato cans rather than pushing herself to help her club. The explanations – that she was required to play in the USWNT exhibitions – sounded hollow to a frustrated and increasingly impatient fanbase.
Morgan was traded to Orlando that October, in a deal that was a huge part of creating the Thorns team that won the league two years later; the Thorns picked up Meghan Klingenberg, Dagny Brynjarsdottir, and the rights to Lindsey Horan in exchange for She Who Had Been Known As Baby Horse.
Morgan remains a polarizing player from the early Thorns. I still know people who consider her nothing but a problem, a prima donna, a pretty princess who caused locker room dissension and couldn’t be arsed to play for the badge.
Others appreciate her gifts, honor her fine 2013 season and her role in winning that first star, and regret the injuries and absences that marred her last two seasons.
Still others point to the struggles that Orlando has had since the trade, pointing to her disappearance in the 2017 semifinal against her old club when she could only manage a single off-target shot, as evidence that even if she isn’t “just a pretty face” Morgan is club-poison and is committed only to the Nats.
Whatever the reasons, the shadows lingering over Morgan here seem darker and deeper because of the bright promise she brought with her in 2013.
On the biggest league in soccer she’s won two crowns.
Here, when she’s remembered at all, she seems like no more than a Princess in Exile.
Caitlin Foord‘s arrival in Portland was touted as the Next Big Thing.
Remember that the 2017 team, the “Make It A Double” squad, was coming apart. Nadim and Henry had got their rings and were leaving to make some real money, Allie Long (though we didn’t know it) was fed up and forcing a trade, Ashleigh Sykes was retiring.
The Thorns needed some firepower to replace Nadim upfront, and the signing of Foord was supposed to provide that. “Caitlin is one of the most explosive and exciting players in the world,” is what Coach Parsons said.
I was skeptical and the time, and said so: “Foord doesn’t seem to be a big scoring threat; in 46 matches over three seasons with Sky Blue she took a total of 16 shots and put 5 on target without scoring…she’s not entirely without striking skills, but her primary tools are a winger’s; very high workrate, pacey on and off the ball, a skillful dribbler, and an accurate passer.”
I quote myself not to seem prescient but to explain the immediate sequel; Merritt Paulson himself took to his Twitter to wag a finger at me, saying that I’d eat my words.
Unfortunately for the Thorns, those words remain undigested.
Instead, Foord missed nearly the entire 2018 season recovering from a lisfranc injury. She started only four times without scoring.
(And I should note that Foord’s injury resulted in the panic hire of Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, another troubled Thorn, but that’s another story…)
In 2019 she scored only three times in nine starts out of a total of 18 appearances. She couldn’t perform well enough consistently to lock into the starting XI.
I’m honestly baffled by what Foord’s issues were. She always seemed to work hard, and she often got herself into fairly dangerous positions. But for some reason the shots never came (16 shots in 17 matches) and when they did they weren’t on frame (exactly 50% on goal) and when they were the didn’t go in more often than not.
Was she simply out of position? Foord was productive as a winger for Australia. Perhaps being played here as a #9 wasn’t helping.
Was she somehow not working in with her teammates? She got service, though, just not in ways that seemed to help her score.
Was she locked? Did she get into one of those horrible mental boxes where athletes go when they’re struggling; “I can’t score because of some problem, and I can’t figure out what that problem is, so I can’t score and that’s the problem. So…”?
Whatever the reasons, Foord just couldn’t find her feet here; her rights were traded to Orlando this past January (where she refused to sign and went instead to Arsenal in the FAWSL).
Foord remains one of the more difficult and troubling player moves in recent Thorns history. Did the team simply mistake her skillset? Was she misused? Or were the problems her own; a difficult recovery from a nagging injury and then some sort of mental or physical lock that prevented her from being the player she was expected to be?
Unless she or someone on the club is willing to speak without discretion, we won’t ever know.
The story of our last troubled player lacks the drama of Foxhoven and Morgan or the baffling opacity of Foord; it’s just woe.
Kendall Johnson was not a star like Morgan; she was a role-player, like Foxhoven.
She was a Portland native, first for Lincoln High and then a fine college career at the University of Portland. She seemed like a perfect Thorn feel-good story.
But instead she was drafted in 2013 by Sky Blue. She played two seasons for the Cerulians and then was finally traded to Portland in 2015. Now she would have the storybook, right?
But, instead, she came off the bench through that troubled season, doing what she could, but going out with the team without even a chance at glory.
In the 2015-2016 off-season KJ went out on loan to the Australian W-League and while playing there she suffered a horrific concussion.
That effectively ended her playing career, and changed her entire life in many ways.
“My athlete cloak has been taken off. I am naked. And when I first looked in the mirror, I hated what I saw. I felt like a toddler who was learning who I was all over again. But I have committed myself to showing up every single day. Even days when I literally feel like I’m trapped in a heavy load, hot water, extra wash, washing machine cycle, filled with a months worth of my dad’s sweaty workout clothes, somehow I always make it through. And I’m starting to see that the “missing piece” was never actually missing, but simply covered up by false narratives about my worth being tied to factors outside of myself. Step by step (with a lot of assistance from therapists, specialists, and my people ), I am standing a little bit taller on my own two feet.
I am looking in the mirror and staring at the core of who I am. Without the awards. Without the notoriety.
Without anything or anyone, but me.”
That just breaks my heart.
KJ reminds us that we ask so much of them, these breakable men and women, when we ask them to hurl their bodies at each other for our entertainment. That we often forget that some predictable number of them will come away broken.
Johnson was one of them. She is still one of them.
I wish I had a witty tagline, or some epigram, to close this with. I do not.
Sometimes life is simply heartbreak, and all we can do is regret that.
I want to conclude the memory box series next week with a look at those players at the opposite ends of the skillset. On the one end, the magicians, the gifted, the players with the touch of genius who astound and amaze us.
On the other, the grinders; the warriors for the working day, their glories and their gilt all o’ersmirched with rainy marching in the painful field.
But…if you have any ideas or inspirations for another subject to entertain us while we wait inside the walls for relief from the siege?
Let me know in the comments.