It didn't feature the oft-oppressing attacking displays we’d seen against Orlando, Seattle and Utah, but Portland Thorns FC’s Saturday visit to the Washington Spirit was also devoid of the slips the defending NWSL champions had experienced in each of those recent matches. What was left was a 1-0 result which, reminiscent of the team’s grind-it-out wins in the middle of last season, snapped Portland’s five-match winless run and collected the team’s first shutout of the season.
“We knew we were going to be under pressure for periods, and we knew that we were going to be in control for periods,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said after his team’s third victory of 2018. “Those two things both happened. We [managed] both periods really well and were professional, and that set us up well.”
After last weekend’s home loss to Orlando, Parsons evoked the grit his team showed last season, when the team made a habit of getting three points when it wasn’t playing its best soccer. Saturday’s display in Boyds, Maryland, wasn’t as tenuous as some Parsons recalled from last year (the second trip to Boston was explicitly mentioned), but it did require the Thorns to persevere. Between the steady rain, a couple of very good Spirit chances, and another difficult turn of the whistles, Portland again had a set of tall obstacles.
Those impediments cracked in Saturday’s second half, though, thanks to a chance created by Tobin Heath. Switched to the right side of the formation in the second half (after playing on the left of the 4-2-3-1 in the first), Heath broke down the left side of Washington’s defense before rolling a ball across the top of Aubrey Bledsoe’s six-yard box. Forward Ana Crnogočević pulled the defense near post as the ball rolled far, with Ellie Carpenter’s uncontested finish making the Australian international the youngest goalscorer in NWSL history (18 years, 12 days).
“It was really, really cool to get Tobin on the ball as much as we did in the second half,” Parsons admitted, “and that’s what a 4-2-3-1 allows.”
Goals, however, have not been a debilitating problem for Portland this season. Preventing goals, however, has been, with last season’s best defense without a clean sheet through the first eight games of their season. Thanks to four saves from Britt Eckerstrom, the Thorns finally got their long-awaited shutout, looking a little more like their former selves in the process.
“It was huge,” Parsons conceded, about keeping the clean sheet. “It’s a rainy night in a hard place to play against a team desperate to win, where you have to dig deep and show resilience …
“We showed grit. We showed good character … It’s what we’ve always been built on: Hard work, resilience, and finding ways to get it done.”
Parsons’ enthusiasm for his team performance captures the bottom-line feel of Saturday’s result. Throughout the Thorns’ now-extinct five-match winless streak, their performances’ underlying process has juxtaposed against their results. Yes, the team needed to win, but the analysis, teaching, and training couldn’t ignore the positives along the way. The Thorns, in theory, weren’t actually playing bad soccer. They were just getting back results.
In terms of process, Saturday’s win wasn’t a huge leap forward. Just like before, there were positives to take from the team’s performance; and, just like before, there are negatives that need to be addressed.
Despite all that, though, the team forged its way back into the win column, and while, nine matches into the season, a team can’t let bottom lines be the whole story, Parsons can rest easy knowing his team’s fight has been rekindled.
“Three points was a must,” Parsons reiterated. “Now we can continue to grow with these new players that have come in. It was important to get that out of the way. Now we can get back home and try to move forward a couple of steps.”
So the attention turns to Utah, who the Thorns welcome to Providence Park for the first time on Friday night. But whereas the last weeks’ focus came within the stress of a winless month, the team will have time to live in their three-point moment. Portland has reminded themselves of how to grind out results.