Lindsey Horan, Thorns at Reign FC, 08.07.19
Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos

"One or two percent" missing as Thorns stumble in Tacoma

The parallels between the two performances are unmistakable, something Portland soccer fans wouldn't have wanted when switching from the Timbers to the Thorns. Still, immediately after the city's Major League Soccer team gave an honest but flat performance in bowing out of U.S. Open Cup, Portland's National Women's Soccer League team produced a similar result in Tacoma, Wash., even if the performance had marked differences. Reign FC, scrounging a second-half goal while recording their second-straight shutout over their rivals, not only gave the Thorns a 1-0 defeat but left the team with a more existential question: What, exactly, is going on?

That was the subtext after Saturday's 1-1 loss at home to Sky Blue FC, a question that seemed too premature to pose then. But after another muted display, and with recent performances at the Utah Royals and at home against the Reign still in memory, games like Wednesday's are, worryingly, beginning to feel normal.

"I have mixed feelings about the performance," head coach Mark Parsons admitted after Wednesday's match before providing a diagnosis for their current state. "I think 98 percent, 99 percent was so good. In the sense of how we dominated away from home, in Seattle's back yard, where it's always, always been a tough place to play - to come up and play your rival on the road - and 98, 99 percent, we did so many good things. 

"Unfortunately, one or two moments in our box, and multiple, multiple moments in the final third on the other end, we just weren't good enough."

That formula doesn't quite fit the team's July 19, 2-2 draw in Utah, but it almost perfectly describes the last time Portland and the Reign met - a 1-0 win for the visitors on July 5 at Providence Park. Add in Saturday's home draw against Sky Blue FC, and the Thorns are collecting games where one or two percent are costing them too much.

"We didn't have the one or two percent, and that one or two percent gets you your results," Parsons conceded.

The Thorns did have 16 shots to the Reign's 13, though the home side, with four on target (Portland: 2). That's not uncommon for a Thorns team that has always eschewed quantity for quality. Perhaps more instructive toward Parsons' tone was the team's total passes - a healthy 450 - and time of possession, as calculated by Opta. The 58.7 percent mark is high for Portland's style, particularly given the surroundings in Tacoma.

"They have threats, they have such experienced players," Parsons said, "and we limited them. One chance in the first half. One chance in the second half. And unfortunately, we had many more that we couldn't take advantage of."

That, for Parsons, was the biggest area of concern. For him, the Thorns had "such a positive performance in the rest of the phases of the game," beyond the final product, that "you can't get emotional. We have to fine-tune." Yet over the last month, that final product has been a consistent problem.

"Against Sky Blue, we didn't have the final contact; we just had the final ball," he explained. "We just didn't have the finish. Tonight, (we didn't have) the final ball, last piece of quality, the final thing that puts the ball in the right area or, when we did get it there, that final touch. And the rest of (the game) was so good."

Perhaps, but with margins so thin at the top of the NWSL, will "the rest" be enough?

The loss leaves the Thorns as close to fourth place as first, both one point behind Sunday's opponent, the North Carolina Courage, and one point ahead of the third-fourth logjam between the Chicago Red Stars and the Reign. But that group has now separated from the rest of the league. Five points sit between the league's four playoff team and the NWSL's bottom five.

Increasingly, 2019 is looking like 2018, as far as the likely playoff teams are concerned, which means in addition to maintaining enough points to make another postseason, each potential repeat playoff team has to worry about their preparedness for the postseason. "Playing the way we are," each coach has to ask themselves, "how do we match up with [one team]? Or [another]? Or [the last one]?"

More explicitly: If you're at 98 or 99 percent, will that be enough to accomplish your goals, particularly when, in October, the most important part of the NWSL season starts?

If the Thorns' last month-plus is any indication, the answer is "no." But there are eight games to go, and in a world where thin margins may define the league, it may not take long to restore the team's course.

The next chance to do so will be Sunday, when Portland's nemesis arrives in Goose Hollow. What better way to test that final one or two percent than a visit from the Courage?

"We have to have a quick turnaround to work on it," Parsons said. "Getting the extra percent. The extra two percent, with putting the ball in the back of the net. And then, it's about making sure the ball doesn't go in ours."

At these levels of the NWSL, that may be easier said than done.