PORTLAND, Ore. – And just like that, the game changed.
You can say that about most matches. Such is the nature of a sport where scoring is so scarce. But Friday’s game at Providence Park played out like an exemplar soccer’s worst truism.
Yes, goals do change matches, but in some games, that change is starker than others. Thanks to a 55th-minute goal from midfielder Celia Jiménez Delgado – the first of her NWSL career – Reign FC were able to pull a game dictated by the Portland Thorns into their win column. The 1-0 victory vaulted Vlatko Andonovski’s team to the top of the standings, leaving the night’s hosts regretting being shutout for a second-straight game at home.
“The first half, I felt like the first half of the half, we were missing the final ball,” head coach Mark Parsons explained, “and then when we found the ball, we were missing the final touch …
“It’s disappointing not to score two games in a row at home. Been a long time since that happened once. Now it’s twice. We’ve got some work to do.”
Three times in the first half, the team came close, with both Gabby Seiler and Elizabeth Ball nearly scoring their first career goals. Later, Caitlin Foord took advantage of Ellie Carpenter’s dominance of the right flank, redirecting a cross driven into the six-yard box only to see Reign goalkeeper Casey Murphy get a last-second hand on the shot. The first half ended with the feeling the Portland was minutes from a breakthrough.
Instead, 10 minutes after intermission, it was the Reign who wouldd open the scoring. The danger started with a foul of Beverly Yanez 12 yards into the Portland half. The subsequent restart was lofted short and wide to Theresa Nielsen, who one-timed a looping ball to into the left of the penalty box. Though the Thorns won the ensuing header and blocked the next shot, a final try from Jiménez Delgado sailed through a crowd and into the right of Britt Eckerstrom’s goal.
“We created our chances, but didn’t find the back of the net,” team captain Christine Sinclair said. “Then, as soon as they got up, they parked the bus. We couldn’t break it down. It’s something we’ll have to work on.”
The goal gave the Reign the right to be conservative. Given how the Thorns pinned their guests in the first half, they may not have had a choice. Whereas the game once appeared to be a battle of attrition, when Portland seemed set to slowly wear the Reign down, Jiménez Delgado’s score summoned the typical dynamic of a road team holding out.
“If you look at the first half, it was going to be one goal that was going to decide (the game),” Parsons said, “and being the home team, being the team that needs to give back to these fans we haven’t seen in a long time, could have and should have been us. But it wasn’t.
“That starts with me. Obviously, we’ve got to grow. We’ve got to get better and improve, get these players, everyone back on the same page. People coming from different situations, get everyone back on the same page, make sure we connect a bit better.”
Sinclair made her return from the World Cup on Friday, as did Foord and Hayley Raso. The first two went into the starting lineup while Raso came on shortly after halftime, rearranging the depth chart that had carried the Thorns through the previous month.
“This entire season has been sporadic,” Sinclair said. “The first few games of the season, everyone was here. Then, no one was here. Me, personally, I’ve been back for three days, so (I’m) just sort of getting used to playing as a Thorn.”
Perhaps the reintegration of returning players disrupted Portland’s rhythm, though the arrivals of Andressinha and Carpenter didn’t hurt the Thorns last week in Houston. Nor did the rhythm the team had through much of June help in Portland’s previous home game, a 0-0 draw with the Utah Royals.
“We’ve got to get better and improve,” Parsons said, “get these players, everyone back on the same page. People coming from different situations, get everyone back on the same page, make sure we connect a bit better.”
The game was there for the taking. Seiler’s first-half chance said as much, as did Ball’s and Foord’s. No credit should be taken from Reign FC’s strong defensive performance, but in time, Portland will look back on this game and see a visitor who only took seven shots, were playing without their two best players (Megan Rapinoe and Jessica Fishlock), and still claimed three points in Goose Hollow.
It’s only match number 11, though. The season is 24 games long. There’ll be time to improve, and time to reclaim the first-place perch Portland surrendered with their loss at home.
But that improvement needs to come. Give the Reign as much credit as you want, but ultimately for the Thorns, this should feel like three points dropped.
“We’ve got to get better fast, and I and the staff have got to be able to support these players,” Parsons reiterated. “We’ve got a great, fantastic, committed group. We’re doing great stuff, so far. We’ve got to find a new level, and it starts this week.”