Slow start reversed, Thorns take point, lessons from Sky Blue

Mark Parsons, Thorns at Sky Blue FC, 04.28.19

There’s always something to take from a show of resilience, and having to overcome an early two-goal deficit to earn Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Sky Blue FC, the Portland Thorns can take heart in their response. The early hole, created as last week’s defensive errors in Chicago carried through to a new match, served as a wakeup call, with goals from Emily Sonnett and Tobin Heath quickly providing a response.

Had Portland not played such a big part in Carli Lloyd’s goals in the first 18 minutes, the match could have been about more than a response. Instead, shared points, a second-straight draw, and more lessons to take forward will define Thorns FC’s efforts at Sky Blue.

"Unfortunately, we just had a slow start," head coach Mark Parsons said. "Credit to Sky Blue. I thought they were very good, today. They took their goals. They pounced on a couple of things and took their chances very well."

For the second week in a row, there’s a need to ask questions about Portland’s defense, and not only because of the way Sky Blue scored their goals. An inability to contain SBFC midfielder Raquel Rodriguez on the hosts’ eighth-minute counter allowed Lloyd to be setup early, while an ill-fated backpass provided the U.S. international with an unintentional assist 11 minutes later. But even at match’s end, Sky Blue was able to make things uncomfortable. Chances for Rodriguez, Nahomi Kawasumi and Imani Dorsey over the last 21 minutes could have swung the game toward the hosts.

Those type of close calls, however, have been the reality of Portland’s games at Rutgers University, something we highlighted before the game. Struggles over the few years have left Sky Blue with a certain perception to NWSL observers, but the Thorns’ reality against the Piscataway, New Jersey-based club has been far different. No matter Portland’s form, Sky Blue has always played them close, and while the reasons behind that proximity are unclear, that’s the reality of Thorns FC’s life against Sky Blue.

In that vein, Sunday’s response is worth note. It wasn’t a given that Portland would come back after being down two, and in Sky Blue’s ability to create chances in transition, there was a very real chance two goals, over the next 72 minutes, could become three or four. But the control the Thorns exerted over the remainder of the first half gave Portland a chance to fully turn the result. By the time Ana Crnogorčević put a 38th-minute cross from Ellie Carpenter over the goal, the Thorns had already evened the tables. Even though the score read 2-2, intermission arrived with Portland in control.

It also arrived at a perfect time for Sky Blue, who not only used the break to recover but, by the time the final whistle blew, may have had the better of the final 45 minutes. Beyond their chances at the end, Sky Blue outshot Portland 11-6 after halftime, with a few other near-chances in transition having to be cut out by the Thorns’ last defenders. While Caitlin Foord nearly took full points for Portland with two chances in the 88th minute, the home side felt just as likely (if not more) to score the fifth goal.

This is what life is like on the road in the NWSL. No matter your talent level, if you don’t play your best game, you’re going to be pushed. And as evidenced by Sky Blue’s ability to pounce on early Portland errors, the Thorns were pushed to the edge on Sunday. Why they let themselves get in that position has to be explored, but their ability to respond and salvage the day can’t be completely ignored.

"It was great character, great fight to be able to get two back before halftime," Parsons said. "Maybe we could have had another one or two before halftime.

"The second half was an open game, with two teams desperate to try and get three points. Both teams had a few looks there, in the second.

"There was no lack of will or determination, but we couldn’t get that goal that we wanted."

We also can’t overlook another obvious the fact, one that’s naturally missed in the wake of a points that feel dropped: This is only week three of the season. Expectations of the Thorns are that they shouldn’t struggle this much with Sky Blue. But, they do. And, expectations say they shouldn’t be subject to the same struggles most teams deal with, in some form. But, they are. Luckily, like every other team in the NWSL, they get the luxury of working through their problems over the course of a broader season, and as of today’s draw, there are still 21 rounds to go.

Through three, the Thorns have five points, having yet to suffer a loss or enjoy a game at home. For the next two weeks, too, they’ll be able to enjoy Portland, with next week’s bye giving them a weekend off. For the first time this season, the team gets a chance to regroup.

Now, with two weeks before a return visit to the Pride, the Thorns will have time to address what’s happened since their season-opening trip to Orlando. Regardless, there’s plenty of their 2019 journey to go.