In the wake of last week’s season-opening defeat to the North Carolina Courage, Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons insisted that most of his team’s components were there. Despite a 1-0 loss, the play, itself, was present for the NWSL’s defending champions. Portland just needed to have more belief closer to goal.
The result was a relative outburst for a Portland side that had only scored twice in its previous four games, going back to preseason. Against the Red Stars, though, the theory of the team surfaced in a way it hadn’t to this point of the season. The constant pressing of the team’s forwards hounded their hosts into turnovers, with the relentlessness of the Thorns’ two-front forcing Chicago to crack at key moments.
“We put them under a lot of pressure, turned [the ball] over and capitalized on some of their mistakes,” acting head coach Rich Gunney said after his team’s win at Toyota Park. “We were pleased with the performances, disappointed that we couldn’t have made it a little bit more stress free … It was a tough, tight game, but we we’re just pleased to perform well and get the result.”
The teams exchanged goals over the first 31 minutes, with Horan’s ninth-minute opener on the second phase of a corner kick equalized in the 31st minute by Alyssa Mautz’s deflected conversion. Over that time, though, the pressing of forwards Mallory Weber and Tyler Lussi started to dictate the game, both by forcing the Red Stars into mistakes in possession and turning outlet passes into 50-50 balls to be contested by the likes of Horan and Sinclair.
That pressure wilted the Red Stars in the 38th minute, when an errant pass by goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher left Weber with an unguarded goal from just outside the penalty area. Though Weber’s shot sailed high, Portland produced a similar chance two minutes later, with Sinclair burying the Thorns’ second goal into an empty net after Naeher couldn’t get to an under-hit backpass quick enough.
The demands on Weber and Lussi were too much to allow them to go a full 90 minutes, but when Ifeoma Onumonu and Midge Purce took their turns up top, Portland’s forwards continued to define the match. Much of the second half saw the likes of Weber, Onumonu and Purce attack the area behind Chicago’s defense as Horan played passes into space. Whether pressed with the ball or tested without, the Red Stars defense had their hands full with Portland’s forwards.
“Tyler and Mal in the first half did extremely well,” Gunney said. “They caused a lot of trouble, a lot of problems, and also got on the ball and created some really good opportunities.
“Tyler’s coming back from injury, so she started to fatigue just before half time … So, we made a change at half time, and the next ones came in and did the same job. Ify, again, put in a huge amount of work, then Midge, when we made the tactical change, did the same job. We’re really pleased with their hard work.”
It was work that allowed Portland’s biggest stars to step up. Horan’s goal was a pure strike into the right of goal after an early corner settled at her feet, allowing the U.S. international to give the Thorns their first lead of the season. Sinclair’s second goal, a 65th minute penalty kick, was a similarly pure shot, with the Portland captain quickly stepping up and through her penalty kick and finishing inside Naeher’s right post.
“They came up big time for us,” Gunney said of Horan and Sinclair. “The team, collectively, all stuck together and did so well, [but] we needed that clinical finishing from Sincy. And again, great second phase from Lindsey to turn and strike. The pace and power and accuracy. Some real quality from both of them.”
It was, both to the eye and on the scoresheet, the theory of the Thorns, played out. The big names like Horan and Sinclair will dominate the highlight reels, but it was the style, as dictated by the work up top, that turned the match for Portland.
“[The team] put in all the hard work around [Horand and Sinclair] for them to make it count,” Gunney explained, “so we could get the three points." And no matter who scores the goals, the three points go into the team’s column.