Beneath the surface of Portland Thorns FC’s 11th win of the NWSL season is a story of obstacles, one that augments the straight-forward, somewhat pedestrian tale Saturday’s final score tells.
On one level, the 1-0 win over a Washington Spirit team that, with the result, set a league record for losses in a season seems more obligatory than impressive; but on another, the stifling control Portland showed over long stretches of Saturday’s game reflected another piece of progress, one the team can build on going into their final game of the regular season.
“We saw a lot of great defensive work,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said, his team having limited their hosts at Audi Field to two shots on target. “To fly here on Thursday after Wednesday night in a must win game? To put that commitment and desire and effort to work? [The players] are just absolutely exhausted. Absolutely exhausted when the final whistle went.”
Any temptation to ask for more that three points from the Thorns has to be tempered by that exhaustion, as well as what caused it. The Thorns finished their Wednesday, 2-1 win over Sky Blue FC at roughly 1:00 a.m. Eastern time, only they weren’t playing in the Eastern time zone. They were in Portland, just hours before a cross-country flight, a day of lost training, three hours rolled off their clocks for time zones and, in terms of a normal, game-per-week schedule, a short turnaround.
It was the worst situation the NWSL’s schedule could give you, wrapping all four obstacles into a single match’s challenges. That his team responded so positively won praise from Parsons.
“The mentality was really, really strong,” he explained. “We just continued to ask each other to keep working and keep distances tight. We didn’t open [up, defensively,] at any point. When the Spirit had more of the ball, more than we wanted, we didn’t get big. We didn’t create gaps that normally happen on the road; or, should happen when you’ve just done that travel.”
That effort meant goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, so important in pushing the Thorns to within two points of second-place Seattle Reign FC, didn’t have to be important on Saturday. Washington’s Rose Lavelle hit a heavy ball from distance at the Portland `keeper in the first half, but Franch’s parry then control meant the shot had little chance to reaching nylon. In the second half, an acrobatic leap at a far-post corner allowed the U.S. international to flash her athleticism, but the ball wasn’t going on goal - and never had a chance to, thanks to the reigning Goalkeeper of the Year’s efforts.
A strong night from Emily Menges meant Spirit forward Ashley Hatch was silent, for the most part. U.S. international Mallory Pugh? Washington’s tactics meant she was often stranded wide and away from the ball. Fellow U.S. standout Lavelle was more involved in the Spirit's play, but having to come back from wide to pick up the ball deeper and in the middle, Lavelle was often two levels away from anything that would draw Franch’s bother.
“I know [the Spirit] haven’t scored the goals that their players are capable of,” Parsons said, Washington having gone seven games without a goal, “but their individual players, we kept them out of the game. We kept them really quiet. Trying to deal with transition with Pugh, and Lavelle, and Hatch on the field is really hard. I felt like we kept that quiet.”
The scoreboard says as much. What the scoreboard also said, though, was the Thorns failed to put up as many goals as they would have liked. Despite dictating the game’s play throughout, and ushering in a particularly oppressive stretch after halftime, Portland was unable to push an insurance goal over the line, carrying Tobin Heath’s 15th minute, sharp-angle conversion to full time.
“The thing we want to improve when we go away, when we spend some time on it is putting the ball in the back of the net,” Parsons conceded, “because I think that’s two games in a row where we should have scored a lot of goals.”
Even against Chicago, two games before, Portland could have had more goals, but their fight back from two down over that match’s final half hour cast asking for a third goal as a greedy thought. The underlying point is the same, though. Portland may be having increased success dictating how games are played, but if you’re not dictating the scoreboard, too, what’s the end goal?
For now, the end goals are being achieved. Portland is 6-1-1 in their last eight games, a stretch over which the Thorns have outscored their opponents, 17-6. With a two-week international break here, though, Parsons hopes a more normal training routine will help Portland address their lingering concerns.
“It would be nice to keep rolling after a big win, but we need to recover,” he said. "The players are absolutely exhausted. I think two weeks might be a perfect timeline, because we get to rest, we recover, and we get to really train, which we haven’t done for a long time.”
Train for what, still two weeks away, feels like an extra playoff game. Sept. 7’s meeting between the Thorns and Reign won’t determine either team’s playoff lives, with both having already qualified for the postseason, but it will determine who gets a home playoff game in the postseason’s first round. Win, and the Thorns pass Seattle to claim the NWSL's runner-up’s spot for the second season in a row. Lose, and the team will be left traveling, with both Seattle and North Carolina as possible opponents.
“We know that we’ve got to be at our best. That’s a place that we thrive off, and I keep saying that,” Parsons said. “I honestly believe the whole world should be watching. It will probably be one of the highest-level games that we’ll see in the palace of women’s soccer.”