20211016 christine sinclair

The result said one thing. The performance said another.

On Wednesday night at Providence Park, Portland Thorns FC played their best game in over a month, outshooting OL Reign 14-3 during a first half that ended with Portland up, 1-0. With OL chasing the game, that gap in shots closed to 23-15 by full time, but until the 86th minute, the Thorns looked on track for victory. A late, controversial penalty awarded to the Reign meant the match ended 1-1, but in their underlying performance, Portland was better than at any other point in their last four games.

“We played well. We dominated the game,” Thorns captain Christine Sinclair said after Wednesday’s draw. “[We were] unlucky not to score probably a couple of more goals in the first half, really put it away.”

Unfortunately, each of the last four games has ended without a Thorns victory, complicating the picture at the top of the league. Ahead of Sunday’s match at the Houston Dash, Portland has a one-point lead at the top of the standings over the Reign. With two games left, the Thorns control their destiny as it concerns the NWSL Shield — awarded to the team that finishes first in the regular season — but their margin for error has been eliminated.

Rank
Team
GP
Points
1
Portland
22
40
2
OL Reign
22
39
3
Washington
22
33
4
Houston
22
32
5
Chicago
22
32
6
North Carolina
22
32
7
Gotham
20
29
8
Orlando
22
28
9
Lousiville
21
17
10
Kansas City
21
15

“We’ve actually played really well, aside from maybe the game in Chicago,” Sinclair said, alluding to the first match of Portland's four-game, winless run. “We’re just not getting results.”

No matter the standings, the Thorns'goals remain the same. The point of this entire season was to maximize the squad's potential. With the talent at Portland’s disposal, that process could lead to a Shield and a title, but those honors are not part of the team’s day-to-day vision. As the players and staff have said throughout the season, trusting that process means making the next practice, recovery session, meeting or game into an opportunity to improve.

“I think we got bogged down on the result and outcome a little bit in the last week, or so,” Portland head coach Mark Parsons said on Wednesday. “We got stressed out by things we can’t control. Tonight, you could see that everyone’s eyes were on the prize, on the process; on how we play, and how we defend, and how we attack. I thought we were excellent in so many different areas.”

Sunday is that next opportunity to improve, and it comes with a recent benchmark. On October 6, Houston came to Providence Park and not only won but became the first team this season to score three times against the Thorns. The Dash’s 3-2 victory helped them climb from the edge to the middle of the NWSL’s playoff picture while helping the Reign pull the Thorns back to within striking distance.

That loss is, in a way, Sunday’s benchmark. It’s the measure against which the Thorns can assess their improvement. In that game, they gave up two early goals but fought back even. A late corner kick converted by the Dash was the difference, but that difference isn’t insurmountable. The Thorns outshot the Dash 26-12 that night and gave up uncharacteristic goals. If there play closer to their normal selves — closer to the team that faced the Reign on Wednesday — Portland should expect to get back into the win column.

The Thorns have already won in Houston once this season. With five victories in 11 games away from Providence Park, Portland’s been the best road team in the NWSL this season. Though Houston got the better of the Thorns in the teams’ last meeting, there are a number of reasons to think Portland can redeem themselves on the road.

“Our destiny is in our own hands …,” Sinclair said on Wednesday. “We win our next two games, we win the Shield.”