PORTLAND, Ore. – Part of the wonder of following the National Women’s Soccer League is being witness to nights like Saturday’s, when six years of small battles feel like they’ve led to that kind of performance
There they were, at Providence Park, two of the most talented teams in the NWSL – and, therefore, NWSL history, was well as women’s soccer history in this country. Both Portland Thorns FC and the Chicago Red Stars are reaching their season’s most important moments, embroiled in a six-team race for the league’s final three playoff spots. And, come the 49th minute, the world’s best female soccer player, Australian international Sam Kerr, had gone very Sam Kerr, scoring two times to take the league lead in goals (12) and give Chicago a 2-0 lead.
All of this was happening in front of a season-high crowd, with the 18,361 people who showed for the Thorns’ first home game since July 15 reaching a fever pitch in the second half, when their team seemed destined to fall.
That’s when Saturday’s game truly reached high gear. Dormant for much of the first 55 minutes, the Thorns responded, pinning the Red Stars in Providence Park’s south end before Tobin Heath headed home a 60th minute goal. Nine minutes after that, a play that was started and finished by Christine Sinclair – with Heath and Caitlin Foord playing integral roles – not only pulled the Thorns even but gave Portland hope of achieving its pre-match goal from an hour: Taking full points from Chicago.
By match’s end, the Red Stars were generating the better chances, seeing Vanessa DiBernardo draw a great save from Adrianna Franch before Rosie White’s header – a probable goal if it’s played down across the six-yard box for Kerr – was pushed wide of her target. Thus, after three minutes of stoppage time, the game ended 2-2, leaving Portland to rue those initial, lackluster 55 minutes.
“It shows good character to come back from 2-0 down and get a point out of the game,” Foord conceded, “but it felt like a bit of a loss for us, because we came here to get the three points. We’re a little bit disappointed, but as I said, we showed really good character to come back from two down.”
They were sentiments echoed by Thorns head coach Mark Parsons, who was a little more exacting in his diagnosis.
“Unfortunately, we were a little bit flat in the first half,” he explained, “and because of our quality, we managed to stay in there. We conceded before halftime, managed to concede after halftime, but that first half was too flat for what we’re capable of doing.
“It just shows what [the Thorns are] made of, because 2-0 down against the Chicago Red Stars, a quality team – who just like us are just now getting their pieces together, getting to know each other – the fact that we clawed two goals? We couldn’t do that at the beginning of the season. We couldn’t do that half-way through the season, and I don’t know the last time we did come back from two goals.”
The scoresheet will show the main reason for that deficit was Kerr, whose solo effort toward the end of the first half turned what could have been an innocuous giveaway 55 yards from goal into the game’s first score. In the second half, another side of Kerr’s game shined, with the Australian international out-muscling Emily Sonnett to head home DiBernardo’s cross.
“She’s a world-class striker, and she can get on the end of anything and finish anything,” Thorns right back and fellow international Ellie Carpenter explained. “Next teams we play, we’re going to contain their strikers better.”
For his part, Parsons pushed back against the idea that Chicago’s was a one-woman show, noting that Kerr’s big night – one that took the league’s goal scoring lead from Portland’s Lindsey Horan (11) – reflected the Red Star’s overall work.
“There’s been other games that I kind of hid behind the fact that she’s world class, hid behind the fact that she’d grabbed a goal for them,” Parsons said of Kerr. “[Chicago] were very good tonight. They were a very good team. They got her in the game, and they kept her in the game.
“Credit to Chicago, and of course, just like we have world-class players who can finish, she was there to finish. I think Chicago, that is one of their strongest performances they’ve had in the long time.”
So strong, it brought out one of the best versions of the Thorns attack we’ve seen this season. There have been other times – in the second half of the team’s visit to Utah; or the second half of Seattle’s visit to Portland – where the Thorns looked on the verge of breaking into something overbearing, and in summer games against Utah (four goals) and Houston (three), the team’s quality has come out.
On Saturday, though, for the better part of 25 minutes after the Thorns woke up, they had Chicago pinned in their defensive half. The physicality teams always worry about from Portland was conspiring with their technique and ambition to take the Red Stars out of their game, as well as produce goals like Sinclair’s. Once the Thorns responded, they looked every bit like a team that should have expected three points before kickoff.
“We had an opportunity tonight,” Parsons said, of where the game stood after his team’s second goal. “The thing that was disappointing is we didn’t play our best. We didn’t work as hard as we can. We didn’t show as much quality. We were a tad off.”
Perhaps, though, some credit is due Chicago. If you go player for player through that Red Stars’ lineup, you see talents that would be automatic choices for most teams in the league. Kerr, DiBernardo, Morgan Brian, Yuki Nagasato, Danielle Colaprico are all enviable players from midfield forward. Casey Short – switched from her left back’s position to the right, presumably to match up with Heath – showed she is as good a one-on-one defender as there is in the league, while center backs Julie Ertz and Katie Naughton in front of goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher only started to bend once the best version of the Thorns came out.
Until then, the game played as one you’d expect from two of league’s most talented teams. Some moments were Chicago’s; others were Portland’s. Almost all of them were hotly contested. And with Kerr, Heath and Sinclair on the scoresheet, the night was one NWSL fans could be thankful for, even if it didn’t produce the home crowd’s result.
“It was a high-level game,” Parsons said. “It was a shame we weren’t at our best. It would have been a fun night of really elite women’s soccer.”