20211017 christine sinclair in houston

The Portland Thorns entered the season with a chance to win four trophies. After Sunday’s game in Houston, three of those honors have been secured. Adding to the NWSL Challenge Cup and Women’s International Champions Cup they won this season, the Thorns earned the club’s second NWSL Shield, securing first place in the regular season with a 1-0 win over the Dash at PNC Stadium.

“We said coming into the season, we wanted to win everything. That’s what we’re trying to do,” Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan said afterward. “We’re focused on every single game, whatever is in front of us, and that was today. We had the chance to win the Shield, today, but by all means, we just wanted to win the game.”

Horan was the day’s only goalscorer, powering a late first-half shot into the right side of the goal for her 25th league goal with the Thorns. The win was also the team’s 12th shutout of the season, tying an NWSL record, and was Portland’s first victory since September 12. For Mark Parsons, the win was his 82nd as an NWSL head coach, leaving him alone on top of the league’s all-time victories list.

“It’s always hard in this league,” Parsons said. “You have to earn absolutely everything. That was our moto, tonight. We wanted to give everything. We needed to give everything. It’s been against us, the last few games, and we knew we needed to control everything we can to put it in our favor.”

A four-game winless run had put the Thorns’ Shield in doubt, but with their regular-season title comes two important benefits toward the next step, a potential league title. By securing a place in the league’s top two, the Thorns also earn a bye in the first round of the playoffs. When the league plays two quarterfinal games, the Thorns get the weekend of November 6 off. When they do return to the field, they’ll do so at Providence Park, with the league’s top two teams also guaranteed a semifinal match at home.

“Beginning of the year, this group came together, and we had a game plan and goals before us,” goalkeeper Bella Bixby explained. “We set those goals to win everything, and that meant ICC, Challenge Cup, the Shield. We want to win the Championship.

“Despite having big outcome-based goals, we’ve been extremely process-based, and we’re really just taking it one game at a time. We’re so happy to bring this home to Portland, but it really is on to the next thing —fixing mistakes from this game, making sure that we’re moving on, getting rest, getting recovered — so that we can close the season out at home.”

The Thorns were among the league favorites coming into the season, but their path to a third trophy of 2021 hasn’t always been a smooth one. For seven games during the summer, the squad was without five of its best players, with the Olympics in Tokyo asking the team to survive without some of its key international stars. They did so, claiming first place for good during that Olympic period, but the last two weeks have been particularly trying for the Thorns. News that has shaken the league has also shaken the Thorns’ locker room.

“We came off a couple of rough games, and coming into this game, we wanted to find our personality, again: our Thorns values and what the game means to us,” Horan said. “We found that tonight. We had to show grit. We wanted to win so bad. We wanted to put ourselves in a great spot to end the season.

“Everyone goes through little rollercoaster rides in the season. We just went through one. We came out stronger.”

It wasn’t just tonight. Over the past three games, the team has gotten back on track. A draw at Kansas City last weekend was a good result against a team that is playing beyond their record, while Wednesday’s match at Providence Park was a three-point performance wrapped in a one-point outcome. In both instances, the Thorns were playing closer to their true selves than they did in their September 25 loss at Chicago, or in the first half of their October 6 loss to the Dash at home.

Sunday’s result was proof that the Thorns have moved on. It was only the third time all year the Dash had lost at home. Two of those losses are to Portland. On October 6, the Dash became the only team to score three times in a game against the Thorns this season, but Portland vindicated themselves by keeping a clean sheet at Houston’s home. Despite the Dash chasing the game for more than a half, Portland still outshot their hosts, 16-13, while preventing Houston from breaking down their defense. Almost all of the Dash’s close calls came from balls played into the penalty area from wide, hoping a fortunate bounce or missed assignment would work against Portland.

This was a typical, in-form Thorns performance. After a brief feeling-out period, the Thorns established themselves, increasingly pushing their pressure higher up the field until, eventually, the game was being played mostly in Houston’s half. The defense was strong and proactive, and when Portland did go ahead, there was no reason to think the defense wouldn’t hold the lead. From the first-half moment when the Thorns imposed their style, Portland played from a position of strength. By full time, that strength had translated to the scoreboard.

Now the Thorns get time to reflect. Another international break is here, which means Portland won’t have another NWSL game until October 30. In terms of the standings, that visit from North Carolina is meaningless, but in terms of the team the Thorns are trying to build for the postseason, it’s a great opportunity. There are no questions going into that game beyond finding the best way to bridge the gap to November 13, the team’s first playoff round. Results are truly irrelevant. The Thorns can choose whatever path they feel is best to get them ready for the semifinals.

Perhaps as important, most Thorns will now be able to stay in Portland for over a month. If they make this year’s final, Portland will have to play in Louisville, Kentucky, on November 20. Until then, every NWSL game they play will be at Providence Park, and although a number of Thorns have to leave, now, to join up with their national teams, when they return ahead of North Carolina’s visit, they get to enjoy three weeks without travel.

Beyond trophies, these are the things teams earn when they win something like a Shield, but no doubt, the trophy itself means more. It’s the third of four the Thorns targeted in the preseason. Now, it’s about putting themselves in the best position possible to claim that fourth of four.