Ellie Carpenter, Thorns at Houston Dash, 06.22.18
ISI Photos

Incremental progress, new health delivers decisive result for Thorns in Houston

It was a small sequence just after the hour mark. Short passes, with pauses to allow teammates to move. Christine Sinclair. Ana Crnogorčević. Andressinha. Hayley Raso. No pass went over eight yards. No player was moving with the ball. Everything was pass, read, and move.

Tobin Heath had already come off a few minutes before, bringing Raso on for her second appearance of the season. But in the players that were left, we saw glimpses of something we’d only seen from Sinclair and Heath, at times, this season. We saw what the ideal of this Thorns team could be.

How often that ideal comes out going forward, beyond Friday’s 3-1 victory over the Houston Dash, may determine how far this Thorns team can go this season. Entering the night in fifth place in the NWSL, the defending champions jumped one place in the standings, back into the playoff spots, pending this weekend’s response from previously fourth place Utah.

“This was a big improvement from the last time we were in Houston,” head coach Mark Parsons said, in the wake of his team’s victory. Portland had drawn the Dash, 1-1, at BBVA Compass Stadium last month.

“Against a better Houston team, we handled the area of the game we struggled with last time,” Parrons explained. “We handled it much, much better. While everyone was important to that, Andi (Andressinha) had a big-time game in [central midfield], and Celeste (Boureille) felt like she was indestructible at times. She did so well, tactically, and played a massive role in breaking up play, which is important to us.”

For much of the night, that domineering Thorns play didn’t come through, but it rarely does, in when visiting the Dash. Although Portland improved to 3-1-3 all-time in games at BBVA Compass Stadium, Friday marked the first time a Thorns team had ever scored multiple goals in a game at Houston. Trips to face the Dash have, historically, resulted in slogs. That the Thorns came out of Friday’s game with full points was progress in and of itself.

Beyond the result, though, was something more important. The theme Parsons focused on in the wake of the team’s loss to North Carolina over two weeks ago was incremental improvement. It’s always a theme of his, but among the places that improvement needed to come after that three-goal loss was in the team’s confidence. The Thorns needed to get back to believing they are their former selves.

“It was so important,” Parsons said, about the confidence his team showed in the moments they expressed themselves on the ball. “I think they’ve grown. Ana, Andi, and Ellie (Carpenter), they all came in when we had no chance to train, and we had no chance to really work with them …

“It’s great to see them continue to grow, but it’s a reminder that the growth is there. They’re not at their best, yet. It’s just exciting to try and keep all these players healthy and take small steps.”

The names on the Thorns’ team sheet hinted at the renewed health. Adrianna Franch was back in the starting XI for the first time in two months. Emily Sonnett, too, was back in central defense, with Heath getting the start at left wing after picking up an ankle injury while on international duty. For the first time this season, Portland had what could be called their full, first-choice defense (Midge Purce is still hurt, but likely would have played right wing in Friday’s set up). And with Heath and Raso finally healthy at the same time, Parsons is starting to see all the dimensions to his squad.

“It’s great to have those players back,” Parsons conceded, “but it is a challenge. When there’s more changes to the back line, more changes in midfield, and more changes to the front line, there is no line that carried over from that Chicago game. I think we grew not only from the Chicago game, but we grew from the last time we were in Houston.”

The team wasn't at full strength. Lindsey Horan was suspended for one game, having accumulated her season’s fifth yellow card last Saturday against Chicago. Caitlin Foord is still working toward her Thorns debut, while Purce’s timeline still extends over the games to come. But the confidence we saw from Crnogorčević and Andressinha, who arguably enjoyed their best games as Thorns, may have been born from the reality of that deeper, more complete squad. Finally, and perhaps for the first time this season, the Thorns may have room to be themselves.

We’ve had false starts, before. We’ve lauded the attack, when it came alive in spurts, and in wins over Washington and Utah, the team previously felt it was turning a corner. But after the team’s setback against the Courage, another corner needed to be turned, even if that corner was just to get the Thorns back on course.

“It really was about (progressing from) Washington to Utah, to Chicago away to Houston away,” Parsons explained. “I’ve said it enough times. For Carolina, we were being very different in that game. It didn’t work …

“This was a progression of those two before the Carolina game, in the shape … Tonight, we learned and grew even more.

If nothing else, Friday delivered that incremental improvement Parsons’ has preached. And in exchanges like the one we saw near the hour mark – or in the Sinclair pass Crnogorčević dummied to set up the game’s first goal – that theory of the Thorns’ best selves started to come out out.

Now, it’s a matter of how often that version can express itself over the last 11 games of the season.