Adrianna Franch, Thorns vs Sky Blue, 08.22.18
Photo by Sam Ortega

Progress beyond scorelines carries Thorns FC past Sky Blue

PORTLAND, Ore. – Glances from a distance will judge Portland Thorns FC’s performance against Sky Blue FC as an adequate result, and with a 2-1 victory adorning both scoreboards when Mark Allatin blew his final whistle, those verdicts won’t be entirely off. Given the loss cast Sky Blue to a 0-15-5 record, this season, some will say the final margin wasn’t enough, particularly for a team aspirating toward a third NWSL title.

Those judgments, though, ignore the reality of closer context, as well as the actual, underlying performance on the field. For months, Sky Blue have played much better than their record, so for Portland to take a 2-0 lead into the game’s final 36 minutes was no lean achievement. That the game ended 2-1 only reinforced the notion that Denise Reddy’s team is no pushover.

“It hit me in the 60th, 70th minute,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons shared. “They’re not giving up. They keep working. They keep closing their distances.

“It’s hard to do on the road. It’s hard when you’ve had a tough year. Credit to them, because not many teams do that.”

That effort kept Providence Park’s visitors within a certain range of Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath’s goals, but ultimately, Portland got the result they needed. With the victory, the 2017 NWSL champions clinched their third-straight trip to the playoffs, moving to 36 points on the season (in 22 games) and keeping their hopes of a second-place finish – and a home game in the semifinals – alive.

“For large parts, [the performance] looked like what the Thorns are supposed to be,” Parsons explained, describing an attacking approach that was more consistent and dangerous than four days ago, against visiting Chicago. “We threatened in behind, we made spaces in between, and then we switched it and were patient when we couldn’t do those two things. And then defensively, we controlled. They had a lot of transition, last time, in the second half.”

That last time saw the Thorns desperately hold on for a 2-1, July 21 win in New Jersey. The time before that, a late penalty converted by Carli Lloyd on June 27 gave Sky Blue a 1-1 draw in Goose Hollow.

Wednesday’s one-goal win may not be impressive to some, but in the way the Thorns played the match’s first 75 minutes -- and the quality of finish they forced from Sarah Killion to halve the 85th minute lead – Portland showed progress against a team that has played them tough all season.

“It was a very, what we would like to think, a Thorns performance should be,” Parsons said. “We just needed some more goals.”

That will be one qualm critics might proffer about Wednesday performance. A series of close-range, first-half shots from Hayley Raso. Races to the ball at the edge of Kailen Sheridan’s six-yard box barely lost by Emily Sonnett (who took a blow to the face, for her efforts) and Heath. Caitlin Foord, at one point, spun on a ball eight yards out only to see Sky Blue’s Amanda Frisbie standing between her and goal.

The chances were there. The conversions were not. Yet the team still scored two goals – roughly 23 percent more than they averaged per game coming into the night’s performance.

“We didn’t threaten in behind on Saturday,” Parsons said of a game that also produced two goals. “The amount of times we got in behind in those first 25 minutes (on Wednesday) changes the game, for us. We got behind them, and then they dropped, and [Sinclair] was sitting in pockets. We just didn’t find her, enough. And when they closed both of those, we switched it.

“That’s what our attack at full flow looks like. We showed signs of that, tonight, and throughout the [match]. But more importantly, we handled transition.”

Handled transition so much that, for much of the game, Sky Blue’s only looks at goal were from set pieces. Then, five minutes from full time, the ball fell to Killion to the right of Adrianna Franch’s goal, whose finish into the far side of her target elicited a combination of disappointment and shrugs.

“In this league, you’re going to concede a goal like that, or it’s going to be a set piece,” Parsons offered as perspective. “Last time they were here, they were getting opportunities. They were getting one-on-ones. They were creating attacks in and around our 18-yard box. We didn’t give them that, tonight.”

That, however, is still the second qualm critics can offer. From a certain point of view, the Thorns didn’t see out the match; well, unless you count the fact that they actually claimed full points with their performance. But against Sky Blue, in the 22nd of 24 games this season, the final score will just, for some, feel like less than enough.

That, unfortunately, is always going to be a problem for this year’s Thorns. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be their reality. People are always going to want than good wins from Portland. They’re going to want convincing results. They’re always going to want more than mere progress. They’re going to want dominance. People have their own ideas of what this Thorns team is, even though, at some point, their performances should be allowed to speak for themselves.

Here’s what Wednesday’s performance said: Against a Sky Blue team which had consistently troubled opponents this summer, the Thorns were rarely troubled. They built enough of a lead, with enough comfort, that a well-struck shot five minutes from time could only halve their lead. Against a team that had earned draws recently against Utah, Orlando, and … oh, yes, Portland, Portland got their job done.

Perhaps this all reads as a way to explain away a scoreline that could have been more, and maybe, when the Thorns staff looks back at the first half, they’ll believe it should have been more. But that doesn’t mean that Wednesday’s performance wasn’t a good one. That doesn’t mean the Thorns aren’t moving forward.

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