Lindsey Horan, Thorns at Red Stars, 6.16.18
Photo by Melissa

2018's next steps in focus as Thorns, Red Stars play to stalemate in Chicago

The context of Saturday night’s game was almost more compelling than the result, one that saw Portland Thorns FC earn a valuable point with a 1-1 draw against the Chicago Red Stars. Because around Yuki Nagasato’s first-half goal and Lindsey Horan’s second-half equalizer, there was news of a deal bound to shake up the National Women’s Soccer League, one that not only cost the Red Stars three players against Portland but threatens to redefine a number of playoff-contending squads.

That’s what we know from a night that saw the Red Stars organization announce that midfielder Sofia Huerta, defender Sam Johnson, and defender/midfielder Taylor Comeau were being held out because of an impending trade. Via the ESPNews broadcast, we learned the U.S. internationals Christen Press (rights held by Houston) and Morgan Brian (rights, Chicago) were impacted by the deal, casting the Dash as at least one trading partner. With both players having recently played in Europe, the potential deal portends the return of one, if not both, U.S. standouts.

For much of the match, that context faded into the background, temporarily losing relevance amid a strong Chicago start and a Thorns reaction that forged level ground. When, in the 43rd minute, right back Kelli Hubly brought down Sam Kerr in the penalty area, that equilibrium was disrupted, with Nagasato’s ensuing goal giving the short-handed Red Stars the night’s first lead.

The Thorns, however, were short-handed, too. Hubly was in the lineup for Midge Purce, sidelined with an ankle injury picked up on international duty. Tobin Heath, too, was dealing with a break-incurred ankle problem, while the recoveries of goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and defender Emily Sonnett kept them from the field. When Horan converted a set piece delivered by Andressinha in the 48th minute, this wasn’t a full-strength team claiming prominence. Like their hosts, Portland spent the night searching for solutions.

Heightening that search’s importance are the new standings in the NWSL. After Saturday’s games, both the Thorns and Red Stars find themselves outside the league’s four playoff spots. The Utah Royals, having handed the North Carolina Courage their first loss of the season, lept from sixth to fourth, their 17 points one better than both Portland and Chicago. Now enter the second half of the campaign, the Red Stars and Thorns start making progress if they’re to return to the postseason.

That’s what made the match’s final 25 minutes so important for both clubs. In the 65th minute, U.S. international Casey Short came on for Sarah Gorden, assuming her customary left back’s role in Chicago’s back line for the first time this season. An ankle injury had kept the 27-year-old out since March, just as Hayley Raso’s knee injury meant she’d yet to appear for the Thorns. In the 76th minute, the Australian international was on, followed shortly after by Vanessa DiBernardo, a Chicago linchpin whose injured pelvis had sidelined her since the preseason.

Over the course of 14 minutes, three major talents had made their season debuts, potentially shifting the forecasts of each team’s season. The sense of treading water both teams carried into the international break? Now there was reason for optimism. Although the minutes (or, in the Thorns’ case, weeks) before kickoff saw deals and injuries cast a cloud over the squads, 90 minutes in Bridgeview gave both sides reason to wonder how their squads can respond.

For Chicago, that means whatever assets come back for the three regulars who sat out, but with Short’s and DiBernardo’s returns, the Red Stars still got a glimpse of their next step forward. Those players may be local talents who’ve become long-time Red Stars, but in their season debuts, there was the feeling that new, significant signings had been added to the roster. For a team on the playoff bubble, that could prove enough to get them over the top.

The same goes for the Thorns. In her sprinting at, harassing, and hounding Chicago’s Katie Naughton moments after coming on, Raso displayed an identity the Thorns have been missing for much of the season. In her, the potential arrival of Caitlin Foord, and the impending returns of Franch and Sonnett, Portland can see a day when they’ll be closer to their best. Add in players like Purce and Heath, and there could be a time, soon, where the Thorns look little like their current selves.

And yet, Portland still got a valuable point in Chicago. While that may not have been enough to keep them in the league’s top four, it was enough to look at that better tomorrow.