Three good chances spread across both halves gave the Portland Thorns a chance to steal a result in Seattle, as did a first-half goal that was waved off. But when former Thorn Jodie Taylor finished from close range in the 89th minute, the 1-0 victory the Seattle Reign claimed at Memorial Stadium felt like a fair result. After all, Portland went the entire 90 minutes without registering a shot on target.
That feeling, of course, depends on the eye of the beholder, and for Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons, the three good chances his team was able to create (two at close range for Hayley Raso) were reason to believe a draw would have been the right outcome.
"The group worked hard. We never stopped that, and that's why it feels very harsh," Parsons explained. "It feels very tough to take, because I thought a point was the fair result. These were two teams that had chances, two teams that worked very hard, and it's brutal to be on the [losing] end of it."
But after a night when goalkeeper Adrianna Franch was Portland's best player -- putting in a performance that keep the game so close, for so long -- it isn't clear what the team can build on from their performance at Memorial. The attack had chances but never tested Reign goalkeeper Lydia Williams. The midfield couldn't prevent their hosts from keeping a certain level of control. And the defense, although only conceding two good chances on the night, couldn't hold on through the final whistle.
Within those details, though, Parsons saw a consistency the team may have been lacking. Wednesday against Sky Blue, Portland played 75 strong minutes before allowing the league's worst team to dictate the final quarter-hour. Even though the Thorns lost on Saturday, the whistle-to-whistle performance was better, Parsons felt, and against better opposition.
"It was a very together team performance with a lot of hard work," he said. "It is just a brutal field to play on. We never really settled into a rhythm, but we still created very good chances. We still worked, defended and attacked as a team, and we stayed very focused on our task.
"Of course, we slipped in our focus the last 10 to 12 minutes of Sky Blue, but I thought this was 90 minutes of focus. This was the end of a really long week, but we've come away to a place like this, and to work like that was very strong."
Even for teams on the best of runs, getting a result in Seattle is difficult. There's a reason why the Reign sit second in the NWSL, and only the league-leading North Carolina Courage have been able to take full points at Memorial Stadium, this season. Given how tough Seattle has typically been when hosting Portland, a trying night was always in the cards.
Still, beyond the bottom lines of wins and losses, you have to judge teams on how they meet their challenges, and on Saturday night, Portland's challenges existed on two levels. The first was the obvious, the Reign themselves, who always should have been considered favorites on their home field. To the extent that most team can succeed at Memorial, the Thorns met that challenge, if relatively so.
But right now, the second level is more important for the Thorns, and as the season goes on, it's a level that becomes increasingly urgent. With only nine games to go in the NWSL's regular season, Portland runway to improve is running out. They not only have to manage and improve their position in a playoff race (they dropped to fifth after tonight's results), but they have to start making up the gap between their level and the Courage's. As North Carolina showed again on Saturday, beating the Pride 3-0 in Orlando, they are playing to a higher standard, and if the Thorns are going to be able to match that quality come the postseason, they have to not only start improving now but have to do so at a rate that will have them prepared for the playoffs.
That's when Saturday's result in Seattle becomes worrisome. Last August, as the Thorns were ramping up for their title run, they hit the unwelcoming elements of Memorial in full stride, delivering a dominant 2-1 win that will serve as the team's Seattle benchmark for many trips to come. This trip, however, played out like a reversion to the Thorns' former selves, when the team was occasionally overwhelmed by Laura Harvey's domineering squads. Harvey may be in Utah, now, with Vlatko Andonovski having assumed her post, but in his team's ability to keep Portland from testing Williams, an element of his predecessor's swagger had returned.
At some point, Portland has to rediscover their swagger, too, and while the chances they created could have easily given them points in Seattle, yet another game has passed without the Thorns meeting the standard they want for themselves. Starting tonight, the team has nine games to figure it out, only now, sitting in fifth place, Portland has to make sure the league's other teams don't take the playoff race out of their control. And, they have to become a team that can defend their crown when the playoffs start just over three months from now.