Thorns' struggles with Sky Blue resurface in costly draw

Midge Purce Hayley Raso, Thorns FC vs Sky Blue FC, 08.03.19

PORTLAND, Ore. – It was the outcome the 25 minutes predicted, one you sensed was possible from the recent history between Portland Thorns FC and Sky Blue FC. Defying the teams’ spots at opposite ends of the standings, the New Jersey-based club always plays the Thorns tough. So while Portland’s last result – a 5-0 win over the Houston Dash – and Saturday’s 20 minutes before halftime hinted at a better outcome, the teams’ 1-1 draw was, in terms of Portland’s hopes, disappointingly predictable.

“We had patches where we were very good creating chances, managing transitioning, not taking some of those chances,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said. “And then we had patches where Sky Blue got into it, (we) probably gave up one too many looks … They managed to put one home.

“Disappointing night. We’re at home, where a few more chances should be putting that match out of reach for Sky Blue. But credit to them. They’ve done it again, to us.”

It was a result worthy of that disappointment. With hindsight, the performance leaves the same feeling, because although there was never a moment when you said to yourself, “the Thorns seem off,” there were too few times where the game looked like first-place team hosting a cellar-dweller. That’s where the teams stood before Saturday’s slate of games, and while one point doesn’t raise Sky Blue’s level, the draw combined with a North Carolina Courage win leaves Portland one point behind the defending champions ahead of Wednesday night’s game in Tacoma.

“That’s three points that we wanted to pick up,” defender Emily Menges admitted. “I think Mark said it best. We wanted to get at least six points (from Sky Blue, Reign FC and North Carolina), and that’s one point. Now we need six more.”

Between their mid-week game and next Sunday’s visit from the Courage, the Thorns will have plenty of chances to make up the points they’ve lost. That they lost them at all, however – and how they lost them – should weigh on their minds until their next kickoff.

There were the initial 25 minutes, a period that produced four goals against Houston yet proved a harbinger on Saturday. If there was any doubt a dynamic that’s seen Sky Blue earn three results in the teams’ last eight games couldn’t be replicated, two sides failing to ask enough questions proved otherwise. The first part of Saturday’s game saw Sky Blue’s long, low-percentage shots matched by Portland’s want to seek an extra pass in lieu of accepting a bad shot.

Over the first half’s last 20 minutes, though, Portland’s pressure pushed Sky Blue into their own half, something that nearly earned one penalty kick when Midge Purce was taken down by Gina Lewandowski and successfully earned a call after Hayley Raso was fouled while cutting a pass back from the byline. When Christine Sinclair scored for the seventh time this year, the one-goal lead combined with the Thorns’ improved play gave Portland a chance to blow the match open.

That never happened. The first 20 minutes of the second half, like the beginning of the first, were played on even ground, so much so you couldn’t help think how one mistake, one piece of bad luck, or one bit of randomness could redefine the match. In the 69th minute, that happened in the most emblematic way possible: a Sky Blue player was played into space behind the defense; a ball was rolled from one end of the penalty area to the other; and an unmarked player on the weakside of the formation put a shot into the far-side netting. Portland paid for how the match was allowed to play out.

“I thought they were in the game for the first 10, first 15 minutes of the first half, and then they made it a game in the second half, first 10, 15, 20 (minutes) …” Parsons conceded. “They’ve come in and worked really hard, (were) well organized, and they made this a difficult night, for us.”

That the Thorns allowed the match to play out that way is something that deserves their criticism. Thanks to national team commitments, Portland was without four of their best players – Adrianna Franch, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Emily Sonnett – but Sky Blue was missing two prominent talents, too: Carli Lloyd and Raquel Rodriguez. Given the depth Portland has at their disposal, the absences should have played into the Thorns’ hands. Sky Blue only had five players on their bench on Saturday. Two of them were goalkeepers.

Yet the dominance of Portland’s talent never surfaced. At match’s end, the Thorns’ urgency peaked, and the team hit the woodwork twice within the span of a minute. But that level of oppression was absent from the rest of the game. Instead, the match felt too much like the home draw against Utah, and the home loss against Reign FC. When teams drop their defense quickly, let Portland make as many passes as they’d like, and challenge them to be oppressive, the Thorns aren’t able to take over, and while Sky Blue successful mixed up their approach on Saturday, Portland was still unable to create the opportunities they wanted.

There were plenty of chances to lay the hammer down on Saturday. Transition opportunities in the first half needed to be executed more quickly, and with fewer touches. Late pressure on a packed-in defense needed to happen sooner, and more often. The urgency to prevent a result like tonight’s arrived too late, and for the third time in six games this year, Portland dropped points at home.

With nine games left in the season, the outcome is far from catastrophic. There’s no reason to panic after dropping two points in August. But if Portland’s truly going to make a run at this year’s NWSL Shield – and secure the top seed in the league’s postseason – results like tonight’s need to stop. The Thorns are too late in their campaign, too deep into their progression, to let teams like Sky Blue take points out of Providence Park.