Two goals in the first seven minutes ensured the Portland Thorns would see their first three-game winning streak of the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League season, but the reactions of the two teams at Piscataway, New Jersey’s, Yurcak Field were almost as telling as the 2-1 result.
When the final whistle blew on the rain-drenched match, the Thorns gathered in celebration at their penalty spot relieved at having survived a stoppage time barrage, as well as a second half in which Sky Blue FC had twice hit Britt Eckerstrom’s woodwork. The hosts, in large part, collapsed to their field, disappointed at the missed chance to earn their fourth draw of the season.
“(It was a) massive three points and well done to the team in holding on,” Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons said, after his team’s victory, “because it was chaos and mayhem there at the end.
It was horrible conditions, along trip for us, and right at the end, there, Sky Blue were building a lot of momentum. Credit to them. In other games we’ve conceded goals, and right now, we’re starting to figure some things out and get out of games when we’ve not played well.”
When you are on the road in the NWSL, dealing with four U.S. women’s national team absences, a mid-game injury (central defender Katherine Reynolds having to leave at halftime) as well as a constant downpour, you take three points and be thankful, no matter how you get the result. And given that how was defined by the absences of Arianna Franch, Emily Sonnett, Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath as well as injuries to Midge Purce and Reynolds, there may not be any lessons to absorb from Saturday’s performance. After all, given the constraints, the Thorns were scarcely their most powerful selves, even if the game counted the same in the standings.
But within that game were some disturbing reminders of what the Thorns dealt with three-and-a-half weeks ago, when the winless Sky Blue visited Providence Park and left Goose Hollow with a point. It was a draw that lingered in Portland’s thoughts since June 27, including their two-straight wins before Saturday’s. Against a team on pace for the worst record in NWSL history, that should have been three points. How could they come up short?
Yet on Saturday in New Jersey, come the four extra minutes that were added for second-half stoppage time, the Thorns were again holding on. Again, Sky Blue had been allowed to stay too close, despite Portland being up two come the seventh minute. When the 90th minute hit, the league’s worst team had another chance to steal a result.
“We started so well, we came out, and I thought we managed the game, even after [the second goal],” Parsons remembered. “Their goal knocked us a bit, and it was a shame that we went in and we’d conceded a goal before halftime. Then we had Kath at halftime, Elizabeth (Ball) coming in, and the weather, the rain coming down.
“It just turned into absolute mayhem.”
An Eckerstrom stop on Janine Beckie in the 92nd minute. The corner that followed. The two shots that had to be stopped, in succession, by Eckerstrom and Ellie Carpenter. The barrage of pressure that followed and then, mercifully, at the first moment it seemed that Portland was able to move the ball toward midfield, the final whistle.
This was not the redemption for June 27 that Portland would have wanted. That will have to wait until Aug. 22, when Sky Blue visits Providence Park for the teams’ last meeting of the season. Nor was this something to build on – a performance that will allow the team to ride a high into the Tournament of Nations break that has begun.
“For us, we’re missing a lot of people,” Parsons offered. “I think we panicked, a bit, and we moved away from some of our principles.
“I’ve been in the league for six years. On nights like this, when you’re missing people, and the weather is horrendous and you’re playing a team that hasn’t won, this is what it always turns into. It always does. And the fact is, we dominated games and lost in the first half of the season … Tonight, we found a way.”
What tonight became was a close call. It was a bullet dodged. It was three points under trying circumstances and, in the context of the team’s playoff hopes, another team forward.
The Thorns now sit in a tied for third in the NWSL’s standings, only one point behind the second-place Seattle Reign. Pass them by the end of the season – potentially when the teams meet on the final weekend of the campaign – and the defending champions won’t have to leave home again this campaign, potentially clinching a semifinal at Providence Park ahead of a league title game that’s returning to Portland.
“If you evaluate these last three games, which have been huge for us, what did we do to get it done?” Parsons pondered, when asked about the importance of his team’s place in the standings. “It was focus in on that game, knowing that we had to perform, we had to get a result. And that’s led to three massive results.
“We’ve got the recipe, now, and it will be the same. We go to Carolina after the break, and it will be the same. We’ve got Orlando. It will be the same. Then Chicago.”
Style points aside, 90 minutes at Yurcak Field moved the Thorns one step closer to their goal, doing so one step at a time. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t easy, and against Sky Blue – especially after those opening seven minutes – there may have been hopes that Saturday’s game could have been both.
That it wasn’t, though, shouldn’t cloud the progress that was made and given the players that were missing, the close nature of Saturday’s result shouldn’t inform how likely Portland is to succeed going forward.
“The words to the team were, it was gutsy, it was character, and three points were a must,” Parsons explained. “And we’ve done it again. Three games in a row. We had to win and we’ve done that, and it put us into a good position for this break.”