Sinclair/Fans, Thorns vs Reign, 09.07.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Thorns peak at right time to snare second place, home field in NWSL semifinals

PORTLAND, Ore. – It’s been a goal every year of Portland Thorns FC’s existence, but in a season in which the NWSL Championship game is scheduled to return to Providence Park, that goal took on increased importance. That is why, after Friday’s 3-1 victory over Seattle Reign FC, the players climbed into the North End to celebrate with the crowd, one that will get a chance to support their team again eight days from now, with Portland having clinched home-field advantage in next week’s NWSL semifinals.

“It was amazing, especially because we started off the game a little slow,” attacker Tobin Heath said, the Thorns having given up a fourth-minute goal to Seattle’s Jessica Fishlock. “We put ourselves under some pressure, but it showed massive character from this group to win the game and also get the [home playoff game].

“We wanted to be here. We wanted to play in front of [the Portland fans] again.”

The significance of that accomplishment – an appropriate one, considering the supporters delivered the season’s first sellout crowd -- augments the magnitude of the result, itself. This wasn’t a multi-goal win over just any opponent. Seattle is Portland’s principal rival; a team that came into the season’s final week with the NWSL’s best defense; had defeated the Thorns twice before, this year; and, in 2018, had only given up more than two goals on one other occasion.

Plus, the Reign were playing for home-field advantage next week, too. Now, instead of hosting a Saturday (Sept. 15) game at Seattle’s Memorial Stadium, the league’s third-place finisher will return to Providence Park for a rematch against a Thorns team that is embracing their moment.

“We showed up huge,” Lindsey Horan, scorer of Portland’s first and third goals, said. “Seattle is one of the best teams in the league, and it’s a huge rivalry match. No matter what, it’s going to be a big game, so for us to come out and perform like we did, I think it is one of the top performances of the year.”

It was a performance driven by the team’s biggest stars: Heath, enjoying a statistical season to rival her 2016, MVP-caliber campaign, delivered the game’s winning goal by punishing the Reign with a solo effort after a Seattle giveaway in their own end; Meghan Klingenberg, showing a level of intensity and focus you would expect from a leader whose time on the game’s biggest stages helps enforce the Thorns’ identity; and Christine Sinclair, leading from the heart of the team’s formation, providing the focal point around which the club is centered.

But as has been the case all season, the night’s headline performance was provided by the team’s emerging superstar. Horan had already produced a season worthy of MVP consideration before Friday’s kickoff, but in registering a brace in the team’s biggest match of the year, she went beyond mere statistical relevance. Horan’s reputation for delivering in Portland’s biggest moments proved true once more, with goals in the 30th and 82nd minutes pushing her team-record total to 13 for the season.

“She’s been ridiculous,” Sinclair explained. “It’s been an honor to see her grow over these past seasons. She’s flying right now … she’s been remarkable for us, every single game. It’s been cool to be a part of.”

It was all part of a night that fed into a cliché teams want to use come the postseason: peaking at the right time. Amid a season of ups and downs, one defined as much by injury and absences as the team’s play over the season’s first months, the Thorns have reached the regular season’s finish line in an enviable position.

The NWSL Shield, awarded to the regular season champion, left their reach a long time ago, but with the league final returning to Providence Park and the team, last year, proving second-place is no hindrance to a title, the Thorns, to bastardize another cliché, still have all to play for eight days from now.

“Obviously, when we get over this and recover tomorrow and prepare for next week, it’s going to be a very different week and a very different game,” Parsons said. “But for now, we’re going to enjoy what this great performance was.”

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