Goalkeeper Bella Bixby and defender Kelli Hubly react to a Houston Dynamo attacking opportunity (July 24, 2021)

Emily Menges made Saturday’s objective clear. Speaking the day before the Portland Thorns took the field at the Houston Dash, the team’s central defender explained keeping clean sheets should be the team’s “ultimate goal.” Wins were important, but shutouts must be an expectation, too. “We're trying to keep our standards higher than that,” she said about allowing goals.

On Saturday, the Thorns achieved Menges’s ultimate goal. Leading for all by 31 seconds of their game in Houston, Portland increased their lead at the top of the NWSL to five points, earning a 1-0 victory and their first shutout in Houston since 2015.

“To win in Houston, in [the Dash’s] house is very difficult,” midfielder Rocky Rodríguez said afterward. “They’re a very good team, and to win on their field is so hard for a lot of reasons. So, we dedicated ourselves to closing this one out.”

“This is a place that's not easy to come to,” head coach Mark Parsons explained. “You know at the end of the game, your players are going to have absolutely nothing left in their bodies. The commitment from the whole group to be the dominant team for 70 minutes and then fight for their lives for 20, I don't like to do that, but you also get to find out who is in your locker room. You get to find out who your teammate is …”

The match started with a team record after Sophia Smith scored in the game’s 32nd second. Her goal set a new mark for fastest goal in Thorns history, besting Jessica McDonald’s 33-second score in 2014 against the Chicago Red Stars. Capitalizing off a turnover forced by Simone Charley near the Houston penalty area, Smith forced her way through the Dash defense and into McDonald’s spot in the record books. She also gave her team a lead they would never relinquish.

Smith’s was one of the game’s five shots on target, making Saturday’s a different match then we’re used to seeing from this year’s Thorns. During a 2021 that’s gotten us used to Portland putting up lopsided shot totals on their opponents, tonight’s numbers were close. The Thorns did outshoot their hosts, but only 14-13. Portland put three shots on target. The Dash had two.

Instead, Saturday’s game became increasingly about game state. For almost the entire time, the Thorns were in front, and while that may not have defined how the teams played throughout the first half, as the game went on, everything became defined by that lens. Preserving a lead, Portland had less and less reason to take risks going forward, and while the Dash were eventually able to put more pressure on the Thorns’ goal, there was never enough trouble to force Portland to change their approach. Even after injuries of left back Meghan Klingenberg and substitute midfielder Yazmeen Ryan forced Parsons to improvise, Portland’s shutout stayed relatively secure.

s a result, the Thorns collected their third road win of the 2021 regular season. They’re the first NWSL team to reach that mark. Their 22 points in 11 games makes them the only team in the league averaging at least two points-per-game, and despite being held to one goal, the 17 they’ve scored is the league’s high mark

Just as the Thorns surged to the top of the NWSL in the summer of 2019, while their most-famous players were away at the World Cup, the team’s depth is flourishing while the Olympics are ongoing in Tokyo.

“Yes, we have teammates representing their national teams right now in Tokyo,” Rodríguez said, “and while they're away, we have work to do here. Everyone is busy doing their thing, and one of the things the Thorns take pride in is that we are competitors, no matter what. That's something that we are showing.”

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As for the clean sheets, Saturday’s was the third in four games since the Olympians left to prepare for Tokyo. That’s when Bella Bixby began playing in goal, and when you include her time at least summer’s Challenge Cup, the Thorns `keeper has now kept four clean sheets in seven starts. She’s allowed only four goals in 720 all-competition minutes.

“Bella has been amazing,” her teammate, Kelli Hubly, said after Bixby’s latest shutout. “I love when she's behind us. She is a freaking tank in goal. Anytime the ball goes over my head, like on a corner kick, the ball is in her hands. It's great having her behind me.”

But to focus the defense’s success exclusively on Bixby would overlook the work teammates are doing in front of her, and while that work extends through the length of the field, the part Hubly’s had in the team’s defensive success deserves a moment. She entered the starting lineup at the same time as Bixby, when Becky Sauerbrunn left for the Olympics, and has now been a crucial contributor for two seasons. People have started to notice, but with her team surging up the standings, Hubly’s done more than leverage a moment.

“It's really special to get the recognition I have been and be a big part of this defense, because it's been something I’ve been really working toward behind the scenes,” Hubly said. “The past couple of years, to be able to show that to people, has been super special to me. It's really exciting.”

At right back, Natalia Kuikka has been honored with consecutive Player of the Match awards before the trip to Houston, while Menges and Klingenberg continue to be backline stalwarts. They’re helped by a midfield that’s been combative all season, but if we’re looking to spread credit beyond Bixby’s numbers, the cohesion at the back should be mentioned, first.

After that, it’s worth recognizing what it takes to build a five-point lead in the NWSL, especially at a time when so many players are gone. The Thorns have had to flex their depth over the last four games, and while the defense’s numbers are in focus, the entire team has pushed Portland to the top of the NWSL.

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