PORTLAND, Ore. – Most soccer games are decided by margins thinner that we admit. Take Saturday’s game at Providence Park, for example. In the night’s earliest moments, those margins were more evident than usual.
At one end of the field, a fourth-minute cross to the edge of Adrianna Franch’s six-yard box ended up headed toward the North End, put over the crossbar by Washington Spirit midfielder Andi Sullivan, who found herself open in front of goal. One minute later, the Thorns executed a near-identical play at the other end of the field, only on their cross, Hayley Raso put an attempted clearance into the back of Audrey Bledsoe’s net. The execution between the two plays wasn’t dramatically different, but in the fifth minute, Thorns FC found themselves up one.
You could tell a similar story on Portland’s other two Saturday goals. Emily Sonnett beat her mark on a 19th-minute corner kick, but the glazed shot she steered back toward goal needed eyes to make it through the goal-line crowd. Once it did, Bledsoe had little chance to keep it 1-0. Later, a Spirit clearance off of corner fell to Christine Sinclair. Calmly, confidently, she showed the ball into the right side of net, eliminating what little doubt remained in the 63rd minute.
Washington answered within five minutes, Sullivan lacing home the Spirit’s only goal, but by that time, the margins Portland exploited had determined the result. With their 3-1 win, the Thorns moved four points clear at the top of the National Women’s Soccer League, following last weekend’s dogfight against the North Carolina Courage with a more comfortable result.
- HIGHLIGHTS: Raso, Sonnett, Sinclair lead Thorns to victory
"A really important three points," head coach Mark Parsons admitted. "We’ve struggled in games when we haven’t taken those chances we’ve created. I thought the first half was really good because we created those chances. We were defending in a different way, and they weren’t threatening us."
The comfort in the performance may be the biggest takeaway from the night. Was there doubt that the Thorns could beat the Spirit? Some, but no more than any game carries an element of uncertainty. The real question on Saturday was how Portland would build on last week’s win. For a team that had been disappointed in performances, over the last two weeks, against Sky Blue FC and Reign FC, it remained to be seen if they could establish some consistency in the wake of North Carolina.
That standard, consistency, may read like a low bar, but it couldn’t be taken for granted after last Sunday’s high. Portland had gone a year without a victory over the Courage, making their new, 2-1 win a small point of pride. The team can go into the postseason without fear of another matchup with their rivals, but the postseason is still a ways off. In the interim, Portland needed to leverage the positives from their breakthrough performance without dwelling on them, and losing focus.
Creating a goal within five minutes on Saturday was a sign of focus. Finding a second before intermission, allowing them to hit the locker room in complete control, was another. That they put the game away early with a third goal and gave themselves the margin to weather Sullivan’s blast was the type of steady, confident performance the team would have drawn up two hours before.
Perhaps even more than a spectacular night, the team needed a smooth one. They needed to level off their roller coaster.
"Playing at home is such a big advantage, for us," Raso explained. "We love coming out here in front of this group of fans and playing at home. Keeping top spot, it’s important in that late run for a playoff spot."
After a night of neither highs nor lows, the Thorns can afford to think this is normal; that this is sustainable – the kind of level a team can maintain over the season’s final month-plus. Ahead on the scoreboard for 86 minutes, and only breached by a shot from just short of 30 yards, Portland can build toward next Sunday’s national-television showdown with the Chicago Red Stars knowing a performance like tonight may be their foundation. This may be what the team can rely on.
"This is a professional performance; an important three points," Parsons reiterated. "I’m proud that we took those goals, those chances to score. Another three goals at home: it’s just a high-scoring team, right now."
As of now, they’re four points up on the Red Stars; five on the Courage. They lead the league in goals scored (36), are tied for the NWSL’s best goal difference (plus-14), have the league’s most wins (nine) along with its fewest losses (three). Perhaps only a few moments of execution separated the teams at the beginning, but those moments of execution may be what the Thorns have become. Portland may have entered their taking-care-of-business mode.