It took 12 games across two competitions, but for the first time in 2021, the Portland Thorns were the second-best team over the course of 90 minutes. They weren’t far behind the North Carolina Courage, Saturday’s opponent, but there’s a reason the game ended in a 2-0 loss. After first half that finished with the teams on even footing, two Lynn Williams goals left Portland with their third loss of the National Women’s Soccer League season.
“It’s really hard to empty so much effort, energy, sweat into a game and come away with nothing,” Portland head coach Mark Parsons said. “I feel for the group. But they did empty. They did work hard.”
In Portland’s two other regular season losses, they could argue they’d outplayed their opponents – not that those silver linings cancel out the scoreboard. The OL Reign and Orlando Pride may not have cared about the outplayed debate. At the final whistle, they were up on the scoreboard. But each of those May, 2-1 losses unfolded in a way which, if the two sides played at those levels again, you’d expect the Thorns to come out on top. Portland may not have earned any points, but in terms of how they matched up with their opponent, there were still a lot of positives.
There were positives against North Carolina, too. The team created good chances for Simone Charley and Christine Sinclair. They just didn’t end up as goals. North Carolina also missed chances, too — they could have gone up in the first half through Jessica McDonald — but in the second half, they broke through. Williams’ early-half goal came off a corner kick. Her second headed home a cross. Carolina converted the chances Portland couldn’t.
In that way the Courage scored their goals, Portland will have regrets. The first came from a corner kick which, hit toward Portland’s near post, scraped off a defender’s head before finding Williams, who split two defending Thorns. Her tap-in came from three yards out. The second goals came off a fairly straight-forward cross from wide – the type of low-percentage play that explains why crossing has gone out of style. Williams’ goal showed why it’s worth testing the lower percentages every once in a while.
“Those are two goals that we, when we’re playing our best and we’re playing our tightest, we don’t give up,” Thorns defender Emily Menges said, “which makes it all the more challenging – but encouraging, at the same time. I don’t think we gave them much … We didn’t let them break us down through the middle – only a couple of times. That’s huge for us.”
In the sense that North Carolina never truly breached Portland’s defense — that they never found a way to create consistent, quality opportunities — the Thorns can take solace. That the Courage can say the same, though marks the first time an opponent can leave a field this year having contained the Thorns. You couldn’t blame North Carolina head coach Paul Riley for thinking that, if these teams played another 90 minutes at those levels, the Courage would be most likely win again.
“We needed this type of test,” Parsons said, “because I don’t think we’d faced anything like it, yet. I’m so happy with large periods, and then there were a few periods we weren’t so good. But the chances we created were good chances. They created probably the same chances, and they took theirs. I know we’ll continue to grow.”
Every other Thorns game this season led to a discussion about growth; about how much the team progressed come the final whistle. How much closer is the team to their ideal selves? After Saturday, though, the conversation is different. Did the team make progress against the Courage, or were vulnerabilities exposed?
In their lack of opportunities going forward, it’s possible North Carolina did something new, and the rest of the NWSL will see how they can start to contain the Thorns. And in defense, the team gave up goals in situations where they want to be stronger.
Ultimately, Saturday wasn’t about progress. In the days to come, it will be about addressing new (if small) concerns.
“I think no matter how this game went, we were going to take some great lessons,” Parsons said. “I think we’re going to take some great stuff …
“I’ve got more confidence than every that we’re heading in a good direction, and we’re going to learn from this one.”