PORTLAND, Ore. – The night seemed to sour early, with pregame news that midfielder Tobin Heath would be scratched made public an hour before kick. Soon after, defender Emily Menges was also removed from Portland Thorns FC’s starting lineup. Yet despite those absences, and the removal of starting center back Emily Sonnett at halftime, the Thorns were on track for three points for most of Wednesday night – the result most expected the NWSL’s defending champions to claim against a Sky Blue FC team that had yet to win this season.
Then came a Celeste Boureille challenge far to the right of goal, the starting midfielder having been moved back to central defense. The whistle came soon after, with a point to the middle of the penalty box sending Sky Blue captain Carli Lloyd to the spot with a chance to even the score. Moments later, with the ball in the back of Adrianna Franch’s net, the Thorns were cast to what, just an hour-and-a-half before, seemed like such an unfathomable result, giving Sky Blue their third point in 12 games after the night’s 1-1 result.
“Missed chances and getting way too open at the end of the game cost us the result,” was Thorns head coach Mark Parsons’ diagnosis. “Outside of those two things, this felt like a Thorns home game from last year. This felt like total dominance, being really dangerous, being really great at dealing with the counterattack. We didn’t feel their threat.
“They never had chances and looks until over the last 15 (minutes), when we stopped doing the things that we do to keep the lines tight and not let teams in. Before then, they didn’t have a sniff.”
Unfortunately, as the Thorns have been reminded many times this season, matches are just as likely to be defined in moments as swathes. For the broadest swathes of Wednesday’s game, Portland looked like the better side, something that didn’t matter after Sky Blue equalized and, in a number of moments in the match’s final 15 minutes, threatened to snare their first win of the season.
“[I’m] very disappointed right now,” Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan admitted. “It’s such a tough result. We come out and we’re playing very well in the first half, and we created so many opportunities. You can look at that as a good thing and a bad thing, that we didn’t finish those.
“It’s just unfortunate that, at the end of the game, when we look at that. It’s happened before. Why we didn’t finish some of the chances, and the mistakes that we made, we have to be very disappointed with this. Because we could have gotten three points, here, at home, in front of fans.”
Horan wasn’t alone. Among the Thorns, the prevailing feeling was one half shock, the other half sobriety. How could that result have happened, every emotion, question, and reaction began to imply. But those feelings were almost always answered by a reminder each player seeming to provide for themselves: This has happened before, multiple times this season.
“I’m really [mad],” left back Meghan Klingenberg said. “I know we’re better. We know we’re better. I’m tired of mistakes preventing us from getting the three points. I’m tired of not finishing our chances. This is all on us.
“This was there for us to have, and we didn’t take it. I’m a little bit upset. It’s not on any one person. It’s on us, as a group. We’ve got to make sure that we come together and fix it quick, because we’ve got to get points. We’ve got to make sure that we’re in the playoffs, because we want to play here for the championship. Whatever it takes, we’ve got to do it, and we’ve got to do it fast.”
While the feeling after the final whistle was disappointment, the NWSL standings offered a salve. Portland entered the night in fourth place, tied on points with third-place Seattle and fifth-place Chicago. Thanks to the Reign’s scoreless draw in Utah, though, the Thorns remain in fourth place, tied on points with Seattle, and now one point ahead of the idle Red Stars.
Yes, it’s true. For all the introspection that will accompany Portland’s disappointment, the bottom line at the end of the match is better than it was before kickoff. And, if tonight’s performance is taken to heart, it could actually serve as another wakeup call.
“Hopefully it’s going to motivate us for Saturday,” Horan said, of the team’s weekend trip to Seattle. “But, again, it’s a very [disappointing] feeling.”