PORTLAND, Ore. – When Portland Thorns FC left the field two weeks ago after their 2-1 win over the North Carolina Courage, they did so with their confidence restored, having earned their first win in over a year against a championship rival. The next time the teams met, or should they face off in a third-straight NWSL title game, the Thorns would enter the contest knowing victory was possible.
Now, put yourself in the shoes of the Chicago Red Stars, Sunday’s visitors to Providence Park. With their 3-0 loss to the league’s leader, the Red Stars not only left Goose Hollow seven points behind the Thorns but also with their winless streak against Portland intact. It’s now been 18 games and over six seasons since the Red Stars last defeated the Thorns, with Sunday’s victory giving Portland a five-point lead on the rest of the NWSL with only five games left in their regular season.
“What a fantastic defensive performance with that clean sheet,” were head coach Mark Parsons’ first remarks after the match. “That’s a Chicago team with so much talent, and they’re a great team … Today was a massive step in doing that defensive work cohesively.”
The offensive work, though, wasn’t spared his praise.
“We just looked so lethal going forward, now. It’s a positive sign, this time of the season.”
This wasn’t an avalanche of force, like the Thorns used when Chicago was handed an earlier 3-0 loss at Providence Park in June. That day, Midge Purce and Simone Charley ran past, around and through Chicago’s defense. Sunday’s performance was more measured – more methodical, and opportunistic. Even with its lopsided outcome, Sunday’s performance was driven less by momentum than pure execution.
Take the day’s first goal, one where a ball played from Meghan Klingenberg to Tobin Heath allowed Christine Sinclair to attack an excessive amount of space between in Chicago’s penalty box. When Red Stars goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher couldn’t get out to the shooter in time, Sinclair finished into an open goal. 1-0, Portland.
Or, take the day’s second goal, where a ball played left-to-right across the penalty area forced Naeher to cover too much ground. When the ball was headed back across goal, Purce had the second open goal of the night. 2-0, Portland.
The final goal was a different version of the same story. From beyond the 18-yard box, Sinclair had time to unload on a shot. When it careened off the bar and found its way to Purce, the Thorns finished into another empty goal. 3-0, Portland.
“We take Chicago seriously, as we do all all our games, but there’s definitely a little extra attention given when it’s Chicago,” Purce said. “We all just came out ready to play.”
If the praise after last week’s 3-1 win over the Washington Spirit centered on the professionalism of the performance, where do we go now? In terms of the team’s approach, Sunday’s was a step higher, and a step more consistent. The level of opposition was higher, too, as was the result of the Thorns’ execution. Three goals all into empty nets. No goals allowed, despite facing off against Sam Kerr, the league’s leading goal scorer. There was a measured, cold way the Thorns went about their business, one that allowed their professionalism to be decisive. They expect that, if the opportunities presented themselves, they could provide this kind of result.
“We’re playing really well, right now,” Sinclair admitted. “In attack, we’re always been potent. You give us a chance, we’ll put it in the back of the net. But the way we’re playing defensive, whether we’re pressing a team or sitting in a block, we’re very hard to beat, right now.”
What more could the team have asked from the match? Perhaps, only, that it come slightly later in the schedule. With some players leaving immediately after the game for international duty, the immediate question following Portland’s win was how, with key players set to spend a week-and-a-half away from the team, this momentum could be maintained until their next matches: on Sept. 6 at Utah; and Sept. 11, against North Carolina at Providence Park.
“These three points separated us, a little bit, from Chicago,” Sinclair said. “Obviously, North Carolina is still right there. (There’s) a huge game coming up against them, here. But we’re moving in the right direction. That’s for sure.”
It’s the direction the Thorns hope to be headed in when they next take the field. Should momentum not survive the international break, North Carolina could return to Providence Park with a chance to retake first place. The Thorns’ next two games could determine who wins this year’s NWSL Shield.