PORTLAND, Ore. -- “Growth” and “confidence” were keywords Portland Thorns head coach Mark Parsons had offered up in the days before Wednesday night’s visit from OL Reign. They both were the standards and the goals he’d set - marks he’d hoped the Thorns could meet over the three remaining games on their 2020 schedule.
To the untrained eye, Portland hit the mark on both accounts against the Reign, with their 4-1 victory at Providence Park showing their most persistent and potent attack of 2020. But to what extent did Parsons agree?
“I think you could see our belief and our confidence and also our mentality is, we had some sloppy moments tonight,” Parsons admitted. “We did have some giveaways in areas we wouldn't want to, some unforced errors. It didn't shake our confidence or our belief to play the way we are going to play: an attacking team that wants to get at the opposition; that wants to control the game; and be aggressive when we don't have the ball …
“It felt good. It felt great. It's about growth, but it's also about confidence, and tonight, even when the unforced errors happened, it didn't shake us. We wanted to play. We wanted to be dangerous.”
In time, the night will be remembered for the goals that were scored: three from the team’s captain, Christine Sinclair; and the first in black and red from a marquee offseason arrival, Rocky Rodríguez. In terms of potential Sportscenter moments, Rodríguez’ score stood out, with the Costa Rican executing with a level of precision more akin to a video game than a real-life moment.
“I'm going to try to describe it in words, [but] I think the best description is my reaction,” she said. After finishing her volley, Rodríguez jumped into Lindsey Horan’s arms, later admitting that scoring at home in 2020 had been a “personal goal.”
“I've seen only one picture [of the goal], but that's like a dream goal that you would want to score not only in Providence Park but your first goal with the Thorns,” she said. “What a special night for me, and of course, for the team as well.”
To the extent the Thorns met Parsons’ standards, Sinclair was the biggest beneficiary. It was her second hat trick in as many years for Portland, having recorded three goals at the Chicago Red Stars in April 2019. Against the Reign, her goals leveraged an array skills: the one-touch talent to put away a Horan pass early; the experience and technique to send former teammate Michelle Betos the wrong way on a penalty kick that followed; then the skill in possession to carry her dribble past Seattle’s defense late, setting up the night’s final goal.
It would be easy to forget Sinclair is 37 if you only watched her play. Open your ears to the conversation around her, and you never stop hearing about it. Part of that is the countdown so many are waging with themselves, living moment by moment until her career is over. But part of that is also a piece of wonder. She is 37, coming off three-straight nine-goal seasons in the NWSL, and just completed a hat-trick in her team’s 2020 home finale. For everyone but the player herself, it’s worth the time to marvel.
“Believe it or not, I've made a career out of scoring goals, but it's actually never been really my focus,” Sinclair explained. “[The focus is] trying to help this team win, doing everything I can to get results with the teams I play for.”
That her performance happened within the context of her team’s improvement meant Sinclair wasn’t the night’s only story. Though Portland won Wednesday by the same margin they had in their previous match, a 3-0 victory 10 days ago against visiting Utah Royals FC, the more recent performance felt closer to the team’s potential. It wasn’t only moments of execution. Beyond an initial, feeling-out span at the match’s start, Wednesday’s was a more complete performance, with pressure exerted by the defense feeding into an attack that mustered 500 passes and 20 shots.
“I think our forwards have been playing great,” Sinclair said. “They've been putting the opposition under tremendous pressure. And then, our backline, I was just talking to Lindsey in the locker room that, we feel that we can take risks now because our backline is so solid. If we happen to give up the ball, we've got some world-class defenders behind us. And obviously a world-class goalkeeper, as well.”
By night’s end, fans watching from home were also getting their first glimpse of what could be the 2021 Thorns. Sophia Smith, making her second appearance with Portland, had come off the bench. Morgan Weaver was in, too, after not being able to play against Utah. Though Becky Sauerbrunn had given way to Kelli Hubly in defense, all of Sinclair, Horan and Rodríguez were still on the field. Aside from a couple of parts, the blueprint of the Thorns immediate future was in action against the Reign.
“I just feel proud of the way that we worked, and proud of the way we believe in ourselves; the way that we're going to sacrifice for each other,” Parsons said. “We've been performing and preparing and training and meeting and reviewing and [doing] everything as a team, which puts us in a good spot to keep moving forward.”
Perhaps the future a vector Parsons could more explicitly add to his standards. Did the team show growth? Yes. The performance wasn’t perfect, Parsons conceded, but they did move forward. Did they do so confidently? Yes, Parsons felt, with the Thorns showing more faith in the style they want to master.
But did they also do those things within the team’s vision for the future? Yes. Undoubtedly so. And for a series of fall games that’s become all about 2021, that may be the most important part.