Some players are so transcendentally good, so vastly and obviously above the mundane level of the everyday squad player that they don’t just demand respect.
They command it.
Even opposing fans have to bend the knee. Those are the “Ugh, I hate to see her so much. She kills us. She’s so damn good…” kinds of players.
Here in Portland we’ve been blessed with that sort of player from the first kick of the league in 2013.
Christine Sinclair, Rachel Beuhler, Tobin Heath, Karina LeBlanc, Allie Long, Vero Boquete, Lindsey Horan, Amandine Henry, Hayley Raso, Ellie Carpenter…the Thorns roster is rich with the names of players that have inspired everything from affection to adoration for their skills on the pitch.
Certain players, however, seem to have a different sort of special place in the hearts of the fans. They don’t have to be great players. (They can be, but they don’t have to be…) They don’t have to have some special gift, or some unique brilliance. They’re not always – or often – MVPs or Players of the Week or even on the highlight reel after the match.
There’s just something, often something undefinable or complex, that makes them The Beloved.
Meleana “Mana” Shim may well have been the single best loved player in Thorns history.
And why not? What’s not to love? Undrafted in 2013, she just walked into the open tryouts and won a spot on the team. She exploded onto the pitch that season, her five goals put her third on the squad behind the Twin Towers of Morgan and Sinclair.
Plus she was just fun to watch; clever, shifty, perhaps not the fastest on the team in a dead sprint but pacey in bursts. Not a lockdown defender but decent marker and tackler.
Plus, let’s face it; she had a great song, perhaps the catchiest of any of the Thorns player songs ever sung.
At the end of the season Shim looked ready to break out beyond the team, perhaps becoming one of the marquee players in the league, perhaps even getting a look from the national team.
But the Thorns FO didn’t agree. She went unprotected in the 2014 expansion draft and was taken by the Houston Dash.
Then, in perhaps one of the weirdest deals the Thorns ever made, she was traded back to Portland during the NCAA Draft one week later.
I’m not sure what happened after that.
I’m not sure if it was not being protected, or being traded, or working under Paul Riley rather then Cindy Parlow Cone, or just bad timing and bad luck, but Shim had a very rocky sophomore campaign. The bright promise of 2013 dimmed…just a bit.
But she recovered to have a fine 2015 – four goals and four assists, second on the squad behind Allie Long’s Big Year. Things were looking bright for Shim…but the season itself was a dim one, and after Riley was let go her playing time declined steadily under Mark Parsons until she was finally released in midseason 2017.
She knocked around a bit after that, playing in Sweden that year, and then ending her playing career in Houston in 2018.
What makes her story a little more poignant is what we didn’t know as we sang to her; that she was dealing with bipolar disorder along with all the other physical, mental, and emotional stressors that follow a professional athlete.
The thing about life is that you don’t get the fairytale “happily ever after” ending. Shim had a brief, bright career that earned her a lot of love here before she had to face that sunset. Perhaps that was enough. Only she can say for sure.
Shim has moved on from her professional soccer life, back to Hawai’i, doing…well, whatever she’s doing. I hope whatever that is she’s doing it well, and I hope that she has a good life and is comfortable in her skin.
And I hope that, every so often, in a quiet moment, when she stops and listens perhaps, very faintly, like a sound of distant surf, she can hear the echo of thousands singing “Mana Shim! Doo doo dee doodoo…” and smile at the memory.
It’s kind of startling to think of how many fan favorites came from the 2013 squad. Perhaps none so well loved as well as so entertaining as “KK”, Karina LeBlanc.
What makes that even more bizarre is that LeBlanc played only a total of 22 games for Portland; just the 2013 season. In January 2014 she was traded to Chicago, where she retired from the sport after the 2015 Olympic Games.
LeBlanc is still immersed in the sport she loves; she’s the head of Women’s Soccer in CONCACAF, a UNICEF ambassador, Olympic medalist…KK was with the broadcast team in France this past summer. She’s in the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame, and just now – mean, like, just now, just the past week – she became a mom.
But when I think of her I don’t think of all that; I think of her here; of her wild shock of red mohawked hair and her ferocity and her standing tall in the goal in Rochester to win that first star.
And I can’t think of anything better to say about her than what I wrote at the time she left us:
“On a sporting level this deal makes excellent sense; Chicago sent their keeper to the expansion Houston team and then, in return for not contesting Portland’s signing of a new keeper, gets Portland’s old keeper. Keeper for keeper for keeper and everyone’s happy.
Except…that a lot of people here in Portland genuinely liked, enjoyed, or loved Karina, forgetting that she was a playing piece on a playing field.
I know I’ve said this before, but if sport has any value at all it is as a distillation of human spirit. Sometimes the spirit is the exhilaration of achievement, often it is the grim disappointment of failure.
Today the sport reminds us that anytime we love someone, or something, Fortune holds it hostage against us. If we do not love we cannot lose, and yet we must either choose to love or protect ourselves by not chancing the loss and, in effect, forfeiting the gains of love.
Love and loss; for in life as in sport the end of the story is always the parting of ways, the terminator of delights, and the separator of companions.
And yet, if we do not love, what do we gain?”
And speaking of people we loved and lost…I gave you a hell of a lot of stick, Emily Sonnett, for continuing to make rookie mistakes long after you stopped being a rookie.
But, damn, girl…
There’s soccer as sport and then there’s soccer as performance art. And you are one of the most gifted comic artists ever to grace the 120-yard-long-stage.
You may not have had made all the tackles and won all the duels…
…but, damn; you had all the best faces.
I’ll miss the hell out of you, y’goof.
Well, except when you come to town with Orlando. Then I’ll expect your former teammates will hand you your head.
And speaking of characters…
…perhaps the last and most fun of the beloved Thorns players is Meghan Klingenberg.
Alongside her sense of humor, I think one thing that has endeared Kling to the fans is her onfield connection with her coach’s little daughter, Edie:
Let’s face it; the only thing more heartwarming that an adorable little urchin is a doting adult doting sweetly on the adorable little urchin.
All we have to do now is make up a song for them, too.
So those are some of my choices, Thorns players I have loved, or seen and see as well-loved.
Who are yours?