"Whole new level" has Thorns top of the NWSL

Thorns celebrate #2, Thorns @ Dash, 6.29.19

Portland Thorns FC aren’t supposed to be here; at least, not 10 games into this season. They’ve had nine players at the World Cup and have played eight of their 10 games away from home, yet after Saturday’s night’s victory, they’re looking back at the rest of their league. Thanks to second-half goals from Tyler Lussi and Midge Purce, the Thorns took a 2-1 victory out of Houston, with their three points against the Dash moving Portland to the top of the NWSL.

“On a night like this, a comeback in Houston,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons marveled after the match. “Who comes back in a place like this? Portland Thorns do, and I couldn’t be more proud tonight.”

Kickoff was delayed 90 minutes by thunderstorms that carried a lightning risk. Once the match started, the Thorns briefly dictated play before a spell of Houston control allowed Amber Brooks to nearly head home an early opener from a corner. The next 40 minutes were played to a stalemate before set piece defending failed the Thorns again, allowing Kyah Simon to put Houston in front.

It could have been worse. In the 68th minute, Kealia Ohai, playing in her 100th NWSL game, skied an open chance at Britt Eckerstrom’s left post. Ohai would have another chance two minutes later when she was played alone on goal by Simon only to fire her shot directly into Eckerstrom’s chest. Seventy minutes in, the Dash could have easily been up 3-0.

It wasn’t long before Portland made Houston pay for their waste. A minute after Ohai’s second chance, Lussi’s left-footed shot from well beyond the penalty box beat Jane Campbell inside her left post. Five minutes later, a failed clearance in the Dash area allowed Lussi and Purce to get behind the Houston defense. Purce’s finish from near the penalty spot gave Portland their first lead and left viewers wondering how the match had turned.

“You say, ‘What changed the game?’” Parsons asked, rhetorically. “Tyler freaking Lussi changed the game. Her energy, her enthusiasm, and then her quality on that strike. And then the enthusiasm to make the second one happen, and Midge put it in. Thanks to her, we get that goal.”

The strike was Lussi’s first goal of the year; her assist on Purce’s goal, the fourth of her career. It was half of the comeback formula Parsons felt defined the game.

“I think two things,” he said, when asked for his keys. “Tyler Lussi, what an impact, and going behind tested the character of this team. Because this lot has taken us to a new level, of what it means to play for the Thorns.”

That lot is now 4-1-3 on the road, this season, and with the team’s World Cup departures beginning to return (Andressinha and Ellie Carpenter did tonight), the team sits atop the NWSL. Despite the losses of attacking talents like Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heathand Caitlin Foord, Portland’s 19 goals are tied for first in the NWSL, with the team’s road-heavy schedule making their early success even more valuable.

“First 10 games, we’ve been away from home for eight, we’ve been home for two,” Parsons explained, “and our away record has been unbelievable. The away record is about team chemistry, team togetherness, and character.”

His explanation came after being asked whether, with his team on top of the league, he could consider the World Cup break a success. Parsons wouldn’t go that far.

“Right now, we have built foundations to be a successful team,” he said, “but that’s it. We’ve built foundations. We’re 10 games into 24 plus two. We’ve built foundations of what it takes to be a winning team, with the character, togetherness that this team has built.”

But that foundation answers Parsons’ question for him. As Portland’s first set of World Cup players finish returning over the next week, the team’s provided an answer to every doubt that lingered from 2015. Not only have the Thorns claimed the top spot in the NWSL, but they’ve done so in a way that addressed skeptics’ greatest concern. The perceived talent drain from the attack did not result in a drain of goals. Portland has kept finding ways to get on the scoreboard.

As Parsons said, there are still 14 games to go. At least. And the league doesn’t hand out trophies for managing June obstacles. But if the question tonight is whether, as of now, we can consider the Thorns’ World Cup stretch a success, the league’s standings have the final word.