PORTLAND, Ore. -- Three games that constitute a “mini-season.” That’s how Portland Thorns head coach Mark Parsons described his team’s run-in - a run-in that began on Saturday night at Providence Park. Although some may have expected something more decisive than a 1-0 victory over the visiting Houston Dash, the victory gets Portland back on course, with a home playoff game in the National Women’s Soccer League’s semifinal round still in view.
“The result last week made [the season] three games: a three-game mini-season,” Parsons said. “We’ve got three games, one game at a time, to bring a home playoff to our club. And then we’ve got those three games -- two, now -- to be able to build back up.”
The performance may not have calmed all doubts born from the team’s previous game, a 6-0 loss on September 11 to the North Carolina Courage, but in a way, those doubts don’t matter anymore. All that matters is the Thorns move forward. And without question, Saturday’s performance was a step in the right direction.
The Thorns controlled play throughout, finishing the night with a 19-8 edge in shots, 57.1 percent possession, and a 10-3 advantage in corners. There was only one moment of serious threat from the Dash, though they did cause a collective gasp in second-half stoppage time, too. From kickoff to the final whistle, Portland played like a team on the cusp of breaking the match open, even if the final margin was only one.
That the result was so close is something Parsons will have to consider over the next eight days, before next Sunday's trip to Tacoma. The Dash are a team that lost 5-0 on their last visit to Providence Park; that sit in seventh place in the NWSL. Traditionally, the Thorns have usually done better at home against an opponent with that profile.
Those kinds of misgivings, though, must be contextualized against the obvious: A win is what Portland needed most; and without much threat of defeat, they got one. Here’s What We’ll Remember from Saturday night in Goose Hollow:
First 45, tilted toward the North End
For as lopsided as the full-time stats were, they were even more Thorns-centric for the first 45 minutes. At halftime, Portland had taken 11 of the game’s 13 shots, nine of 10 corners, and held 60.7 percent of the ball. Houston’s only moment of threat came from a sharp-angle prayer from the left of Adrianna Franch’s goal. The game was so one-sided that, as the half neared its close, it was difficult not to consider the potential injustice: What if, before the break, Houston somehow found a goal?
Portland kept that possibility in play. They’d had chances to go in front. Pressing that kept the Dash out of rhythm for most of the first 15 minutes eased as the half went on. Whereas once Houston was perpetually pinned, they began inching out of their own half of the field. A Tobin Heath ball mid-way through the half for Midge Purce near the spot resulted in a layoff instead of a shot. A flick-on from Christine Sinclair for Lindsey Horan at the right post was sent over the bar.
By half’s end, the Thorns had taken seven shots from inside Houston’s penalty area. The number of shots they put on target: Zero. Over most of the field, Portland was dominant, but come halftime, they’d still failed to breakthrough.
Horan + Heath = Breakthrough
That changed early in the second half. Very early. And much of that breakthrough came down to one Horan run.
Moments before the goal, Horan had made a stellar read in midfield to intercept a ball just inside Houston’s half. Moments later, she was sending Hayley Raso in on goal - a chance which, in the 46th minute, ended in Portland’s first shot on target. Whatever prevented the Thorns from breaking through in the match’s first 45, the 2018 Most Valuable Player decided to overcome.
Two minutes later, Horan engineered the full breakthrough. Losing Houston’s Kealia Ohai on an Ellie Carpenter throw-in, Horan ran onto a ball moving toward the end line before playing toward goal, where one of her U.S. women’s national team teammates took over. On a night where multiple chances met uncertain finishes, Heath’s calm left-footed push inside Jane Campbell’s right post never gave cause for doubt. The celebrations started before the ball reached nylon.
Franch's big stop
Undoubtedly, as time goes on, what happened next will be overshadowed by the result, as well as Heath’s goal. But as we live out these moments of the match’s coda, let’s also acknowledge how another World Cup winner, Adrianna Franch, kept the game from reaching 1-1:
Franch had a good night, though few of her contributions resulted in saves. Houston only put two shots on target. But on another night, Kristie Mewis’ attempt, the Dash’s first to hit Franch’s gloves, could have got Houston back in the match. On that hypothetical night, though, it’s unlikely Adrianna Franch was in goal.
A trip still on course
Portland’s game-in-hand on the Chicago Red Stars means, although the second-place Red Stars have a two-point edge in the standings, the Thorns still control their destiny. Beat Reign FC and the Washington Spirit over their final two matches, and Portland will claim the second seed and, for a fourth straight season, a semifinal match at home.
In the bigger picture, the team still needs to improve. But as Parsons explained, they have the runway to do so. Though there’s little margin for error if the Thorns want a playoff game at home, there is still time for Portland to grow into their postseason.