20210925 olivia moultrie vanessa dibernardo

One day before the Portland Thorns kicked off today’s match in Chicago, head coach Mark Parsons was clear on this team’s target, one that went beyond any bottom lines from the scoreboard. “Playing really well is the main goal tomorrow,” Parsons said, when asked potentially clinching a playoff spot against the Red Stars. For him, building on the team’s 1-0 win at the North Carolina Courage before the international break was the standard for Saturday’s match at the Red Stars.

In that sense, the Thorns fell short in two ways during their 2-1 loss at Seatgeek Stadium. Not only did they lose – and in the process lose their chance to build a nine-point lead at the top of the National Women’s Soccer League — but in the process, the Thorns gave one of their least convincing performances of the season.

“I think we came out flat,” team captain Christine Sinclair said afterward. “Chicago brought energy that we didn't match. As a result, it was a struggle for us for 90 minutes.

“It got a little bit better in the second half, but in this league, you have to match energy with your opposition. we didn't do that tonight.”

Chicago jumped on the Thorns from the opening whistle, attacking quickly and persuasively down their flanks. Come the middle of the first half, Portland was going a better job of handling the Red Stars, allowing the Thorns to take the lead through Sinclair in the 24th minute. One minute later, though, it was another attack down the flank that forced a handling error from Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby, with Chicago’s Kealia Watt pouncing on a loose ball near the penalty spot before finishing into an abandoned goal.

The Red Stars would go wide-to-in on their winning goal, too, with Mallory Pugh’s far-post cross from the left headed home by Rachel Hill in the 65th minute, but their approach worked beyond their two goals. Throughout the match, Chicago was able to use the wide spaces to get into the final third with momentum, whether they were playing into room behind Portland’s fullbacks or using the threat of players like left back Arin Wright to created numbers-up scenarios. By night’s end, Chicago had outshot Portland 15 to 14, with the Red Stars holding an eight to three edge in shots on target.

“We were not so good, Chicago were good,” Parsons said, “and I think it's a game where we should get a point out of it despite not playing well, not being anywhere near our level, not being at our best … I'm disappointed we didn't.”

Saturday’s performance was far different than the last time the Thorns were on the field, when the team got their first-ever win on the road at North Carolina. Instead of being controlling and bending the game to their style, Portland had the match defined for them. Chicago was not only able to use their advantages in the wide areas but able to apply pressure high up the pitch disrupting the Thorns’ buildup.

“They obviously clogged the midfield a little bit. It was hard to get on the ball for spells of [the] first 15 minutes …,” Thorns midfielder Crystal Dunn explained. “They made it hard for us to get on the ball and for me to get on the ball and turn and face forward.”

Beyond those details, there was the general vibe to the match. Chicago came out primed, ready, and playing like a team that was in rhythm. For them, the international break wasn’t a problem. The Thorns, on the other hand, played like a team that hadn’t been on the field together for two weeks, on facing an opponent intent on sending a message.

That opponent might have beaten an in-form Portland. That’s how good the Red Stars were. Even then, the Thorns had a number of other challenges that influenced the result. Six players were away from the team for the past two weeks, playing and training with their national teams before joining the Thorns in Chicago. Because of that, Portland rotated their lineup, starting forward Morgan Weaver, midfielders Olivia Moultrie and Celeste Boureille and fullback Christen Westphal while Sophia Smith, Rocky Rodríguez and Natalia Kuikka were held in reserve. Lindsey Horan, nursing a right knee injury, wasn’t available at all, while the Thorns endured a bus fire on Friday which, thankfully, left the squad and staff unharmed.

Those factors should be kept in mind when considering Portland’s performance, the team’s own standards should be kept in mind, too. We talked about those yesterday, and how everything that happens to the Thorns has to be judged in terms of the team’s ultimate goal. Portland’s no longer merely focused on playoff sports or league standing. They’re positioning themselves for a title. If that process is defined by how the team grows over the rest of their season, Saturday was a step off course.

“What drives us every day is trying to get better and every game trying to be better than the game before …,” Sinclair said, “Obviously, come the end of the season, trophies are nice, and we've put ourselves in a good spot to be fighting for things, but we still need to get better day by day so that, come the end of the season, we're the best that we've been all year.”

Ultimately, Portland’s loss isn’t a major setback. They lost their chance to build their league lead to nine points, but they’re still six points clear of the team in second place, OL Reign. The Thorns will demand a bounceback from themselves next weekend, when the Reign are at Providence Park, but until then, they can enjoy the benefits of their margin. It will take more than one or two slips for the Thorns to lose their grip on the league’s top spot.

Instead, Portland can concentrate on the goal Parsons set on Friday: playing well. That didn’t happen in Chicago. Now, the team has a week to figure out why. They don’t need worry about the standings, their opposition, or anything beyond their goals. The Thorns can focus on why , on Saturday, they didn’t play like themselves.

“I still trust and believe that our team is exactly where we need to be,” Dunn said. “We have five more games left ... we're in an incredible position to be able to finish this year off strong.

“Every team needs points, so it's not going to be easy. But I trust and believe in our squad, and I think we can do some incredible things this year.”