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Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Thorns

FARLEY | Focus, perspective next tests as Thorns dominate regular-season opener

PORTLAND, Ore. — Rory Dames’ first course of action should have been texting Freya Croombe. The moment his Chicago Red Stars’ were done with today's match at Providence Park, the team’s head coach should have finished his on-field pleasantries, found his phone, and reached out to his NJ/NY Gotham FC counterpart. 

"Why oh why," he should have asked, "did you have to set them off?"

The "them" here is Portland Thorns FC, who came into Sunday's NWSL regular-season opener hungry. The team had won last weekend's Challenge Cup Championship against Coombe's Gotham, but in the process, they'd been held to one goal. Despite registering 26 shots, a penalty-kick shootout was needed to settle the teams' 1-1 draw.

Sunday's game was never in doubt. Converting on four of their first six shots, the Thorns delivered a 5-0 message to the rest of the NWSL, surging to first place after the league's first weekend and building off the silverware they claimed a week ago.

"We attacked like our life depended on it, today," Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said afterward. "It was fun to see, and I'm proud of the group."

The most prolific of that group was forward Sophia Smith, who scored the game's third and fourth goals and nearly had a hat trick. Her "first" goal, the game's opener, was eventually ruled a Chicago own goal. Christine Sinclair scored from the spot, while Tyler Lussi finished from short range in the second half. Morgan Weaver, setting up each of Smith's goals, recorded her first two assists as a pro.

It’s now been 10 games since Portland’s last loss - a 1-0 defeat to the Houston Dash in the semifinals of last summer's Challenge Cup. Over the 7-0-3 stretch that's followed, Sunday was Portland’s most impressive performance. They were up within four minutes and had doubled their lead by the 13th, only to add another goal three minutes later. A fourth goal came at the 30-minute mark of a day that saw Portland outshoot their guests 22 to four. The final, five-goal margin is the largest of the Thorns’ unbeaten run.

"As good as we were going forward, the reason we were able to have that control in the first half is our defending and our discipline was superb," Parsons said. "We've got a lot of players here who have got a lot to show."

In some ways, this was the same Thorns we saw last week. The team was prolific, oppressive, and domineering in a way that kept Chicago from gaining control. Beyond the score, the same could be said about the team's effort last week against Gotham. In both games, they created chances at will, and while there were periods where their energy waned, the Thorns were rarely second-best. This game was Portland's, both in how it was played and how the score developed. Last week, the score part came up short.

In one important way, though, this performance was different than the draw with Gotham. The issue the Thorns have battled throughout this season — a problem that extends back to last year‘s Challenge Cup — is finishing. Today, instead of repeating last week's struggles, the Thorns were clinical. They took advantage of every early opportunity. By the time the Red Stars had a chance to adjust, the game was practically over. Portland‘s efficiency took Chicago out of the game before the game came to Chicago.

"We responded really well," forward Sophia Smith said, when asked about the team's progress from last week. "We could have come in in-over-our-heads after winning the Challenge Cup, but I think we were really humble and knew that we had to give everything we could to win this game."

Today's was only the first of a 24-game regular season, which means the level Portland showed against Chicago is less important than what it says about their future. Expecting more 5-0 results is probably wishful thinking, if not outright naive, but in terms of what the Thorns needed to work on, the progress is evident. Last week, the team was hurt by crosses that proved more troublesome than they should have. This week, that wasn't a problem. Last week, the team was wasteful with its chances and allowed the opponent to stay within striking distance. This week, that problem was solved inside of the first 14 minutes.

"This is the first game out of 24," Parsons cautioned. "This is the first game out of a seven-, eight-month season."

It's also the first game where, in spite of what the scoreboard says, the Thorns will have to maintain focus.

"Absolutely, the worst thing about losing is you think it's the end of the world," Parsons said. "The worst thing about winning is thinking you have everything solved."

Everything from Portland's Sunday win over Chicago: