20210912 thorns

The Portland Thorns have been a popular title favorite since before the 2021 National Women’s Soccer League season, but after Sunday’s game in Cary, North Carolina, there’s less room for doubt. With a second-half goal from Sophia Smith, her sixth of the season, Thorns FC beat fellow title contenders the North Carolina Courage, 1-0, claiming their first victory of the season over the team that’s won the last two league titles.

With the victory, Portland is six points up on the Courage and three points up on second place OL Reign, who entered the day in a tie for first. The Thorns have seven games left in their regular season and have played two fewer matches than the Reign. They also have one match in hand on the Courage.

“Everyone put a massive shift in, and we were extremely dominant,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said after the game. “The only negative is the scoreline, because we had a lot of chances. [The] performance was unbelievable.”

The Thorns outshot the Courage 24-11 – the type of margin North Carolina was used to having during their team’s peak in 2018 and 2019. Portland also generated seven corner kicks to the Courage’s three and had 411 passes to North Carolina’s 371. Those numbers might not fit everybody’s definition of “extremely dominant,” but they still describe a high level of Thorns control. They were also accumulated on the road and against the team that may prove Portland’s biggest title obstacle.

“Any win is huge for us, but this one is extra special …,” Smith said. “We did everything we needed to do. We were all really selfless and put in the work to come away with this result. We're happy with where we are, but we're never satisfied.”

That lack of satisfaction was part of Parsons’ post-match thoughts. In his estimation, the Thorns are now, “two or three games away from being at our best,” a claim he made twice in his three-question press conference. As much as the Portland coach wanted to celebrate his team’s first-ever victory in North Carolina, he also wanted to focus his team’s trajectory: the Thorns’ ability to peak at the right time of the season.

“We've made a lot of history this year,” he admitted. But, “the moment we think about, focus on that, or eyes are on the wrong thing.

“Process is the most important. The journey is critical to us. We just wanted to do better in this game than the last. We needed to play as a team, because I think that will really push us into the next couple of games, were I think we can get to our best.”

That the Thorns made history was important, though, albeit probably not for historical reasons. The Courage and Reign are positioning themselves as prime contenders for this year’s NWSL title, but over three games against those rivals previously this season, the Thorns were 0-3-0 (W-L-T). In their last game, Portland lost 2-1 at OL Reign, bringing new context to the Thorns’ place at the top of the standings. Yes, the team was in first, and they’d held that position for most of the season. But what did that place say about the Thorns’ title chances in light of their record against North Carolina and the Reign?

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Sunday’s performance puts those fears aside, and not only because the Thorns got three points. They were the better team over most of the match. If Smith hadn’t broken through with a winning goal, Portland would have still been able to take something positive from the match. No, they wouldn’t have won, and they would have been disappointed in that, but going to North Carolina and outplaying the Courage is no easy feat. The Thorns had lost 2-0 in Cary earlier this year. Sunday was a clear step forward.

“The performance is more important than the result …,” Parsons reiterated. “If the ball bounces in or out, you can't always control it. Playing like this was critical because success leaves clues. Success leaves crumbs. Now, we all know when we play like this, we are a pretty good team.”

After Sunday, “pretty good team” seems euphemistic. The Thorns are the best team in the NWSL, at the moment. There are two months left in the regular season, so things can change, but from Parsons’ point of view, change will likely lead to an even better team. If Portland truly is still “two or three games away’ from peaking, Sunday was just a hint of what they’ll be able to do.

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