On a night that seemed destined to be about Utah's and Portland's World Cup stars, another narrative took over, one that is ever-present in the National Women's Soccer League. Though it's something the league's criticized for in other parts of the world, Friday's 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium showcased a style of play that is the NWSL's case to being the most exciting league in the world. And though Portland may leave Sandy disappointed with a draw, spectators have no cause for complaint about the night's chaos and spectacle.
The disappointment comes from conceding a 90th-minute equalizer to Utah's Rachel Corsie, whose sliding finish past Adrianna Franch came three minutes after Lindsey Horan had put the Thorns in front. A 2-1 result, though, would have flattered Portland. Over the course of 90 minutes, both teams enjoyed dominant spells.
"I thought we were great in the first half," Mark Parsons said, from Utah. "I thought they were very good in the second half, and you know what? A tie is fair."
It was Portland that exerted their will first, controlling a first 30-plus minutes of play that rarely saw the Royals to escape their own end. Christine Sinclair scored a Goal-of-the-Week candidate in that time - a looping, first time shot from beyond the edge of the penalty area …
… but over the half's last quarter-hour, Utah presented the greater threat. Part of that was Christen Press's own highlight-reel goal in the 43rd …
… while part was the near-miss moments later, where the Royals were ruled offside as Franch's kick save sent a Press shot over the goal.
"First half, I thought we were the better team," was Parsons' assessment. "I thought we did so many good things tactically, and players individually were very dominant. They just started to get some success at the end of that half. I was extremely disappointed to concede the goal."
In the second half, a similar dynamic played out, albeit in different proportions. The early part of the period saw Portland threaten to pin Utah, again, but this time, it didn't take the Royals 30 minutes to come up with a solution. Not even close. For much of the final period, Utah was in control, creating at least four good chances on Franch's net and threatening to take a lead before Horan found her goal.
And found, even more so than it's used in soccer generally, may be the right word to describe Horan's goal. After conceding goals on set pieces in the same manner in their last two matches, Portland converted on a dead ball of their own - the second action on a cross, knocked down, that the defense failed to clear. Beating Corsie to a loose ball near the penalty spot - and paying for her efforts, as her follow through met the bottom of Corsie's boot - Horan gave Nicole Barnhart little chance to save what looked like the game's winning goal, putting Portland up one with less than three minutes left in regulation time.
That Utah responded in the final minutes gave the match its just result, though if you weighed how the teams played over the final 30 minutes more than the first, you'd say Royals FC deserved more. For Parsons' part, there was no doubt which team was superior over the match's second part.
"I thought Utah were the stronger team in the second half," he admitted. "We weren't able to handle their overload in the midfield, and not just their diamond but the forwards coming off the backline. It took us a while to adjust.
"Once we adjusted, I thought we slowed them down a little bit, and then we just started to get back in the game, toward the end, when the chaos started."
Both teams created goals through that chaos. Both teams conceded, too. That's how soccer works, but tonight, it can also serve as a reminder to partisans on either side who feel their side should have had more. If you felt the Thorns should have been rewarded for their strong first half or their 2-1 lead, how do you explain away the final goal? Likewise, if Utah's finish produces a recency bias, how did the Royals allow Horan to score?
That we can even talk about a match like this is very NWSL. The pace was exhausting, with each team taking turns running the other into the turf. On both sides, we saw mistake after mistake, but those errors were as much a product of the league's frenetic, relentless approach as they were of a lack of execution. This is the NWSL, a league where every game gives us a moment where "chaos started;" where players are forced to show their best and worst selves; where games descend into battles of improvised brilliance; where highlights from World Cup winners get overshadowed by the league's broader spectacle.
The moments you dwell on define who think should have won. Dwell on the whole 90 minutes, though, and you get a great idea of what the NWSL is about.