After his team’s victory last Sunday over the Houston Dash, Thorns head coach Mark Parsons described Portland’s final month as a “mini-season,” one that, if all went well, would extend over five games: from that 1-0 victory through to a third-straight NWSL championship game appearance.
Another way to define that stretch would have been in terms of a ladder, though. Each game going forward presented a small, incremental chance to step up. Hand-over-hand, foot-over-foot. If the Thorns stuck to the basics and kept moving up, they’d be at a much higher level come the final.
With today’s loss in Tacoma, though, it feels as if the Thorns are back to rung one. With goals by former Thorn Jodie Taylor and rookie attacker Bethany Balcer, Reign FC earned a 2-0 victory, one that not only secured their second-consecutive playoff appearance but denied Portland a home playoff game for the first time since 2015, when the team missed the playoffs.
That last part may be what stings most. Portland’s chance at an NWSL Shield largely ended with September 11’s loss to the North Carolina Courage, but the 2019 season was never going to live and die with finishing first. A top-two finish would still give the team a semifinal game at home, a paved route to the final, and a one-game chance to claim a title. In the NWSL, where the title game’s site is decided by the league, not by record, the difference between first and second doesn’t matter in the season’s last 90 minutes.
That's part of the reason why the Thorns could retain some optimism after their North Carolina loss. The result sent the season into a trough, but they had enough time to build back. Beating the Dash on September 21 would be a step up. Lifting that level a week later, against Tacoma, would be step two, with the path through the Washington Spirit, a home semifinal, then the championship game giving Portland room to improve. Do so measuredly, consistently over the last five games, and the team would be ready for whatever they face in a final.
Now, the team can finish no higher than third place. They won’t have a semifinal at home. In fact, they might not finish third. A loss to Washington in two weeks coupled with another Reign win leaves Portland fourth, facing the Courage a week earlier than planned. The Chicago Red Stars get a home semifinal, now, making Portland’s best-case scenario as a trip to Bridgeview, Illinois, in three weeks, facing their first semifinal away from Providence Park since visiting FC Kansas City in 2014.
At this point, the Thorns need to redefine their season; or, perhaps reclaim would be a better word. The Shield is gone, as is a home playoff game and the benefits that grants toward a final. Though their next game is at home in two weeks, the most important games left in their season will be about going on the road with a whatever it takes attitude, worrying less about what they are or their season could have been than what they can still achieve, come those playoff moments.
It will be about figuring themselves out, having lost their way over the last three games of the season. It will be about finding a way to be something more.
Falling behind early
It was 28 minutes before the Thorns registered a shot on target, by which time the Reign were already in front. Over the next 72 minutes (plus an additional 10, in added time), Portland would only test Reign goalkeeper Casey Murphy once more. Their closet chance was a first-half chip that Hayley Raso lifted barely wide of the goal.
It wasn’t so much that Portland’s start was slow, that they never got started at all, something we didn’t realize was happening when, in the 27th minute, Reign attacker Dorian Jenkins put Megan Rapinoe into space alone in the left of the Thorns’ penalty box. Adrianna Franch initially came for the ball but had to retreat, leaving Rapinoe to loft her far-post try onto the crossbar.
The Thorns’ danger wasn’t totally averted, though. Scambling, Emily Menges tried to clear Portland’s lines but played to a Reign midfielder about 40 yards from goal. One pass wide then a cross into the box allowed Jodie Taylor to turn on Emily Sonnett, putting Reign FC up after a well-struck volley inside Franch’s far post.
Like most goals at the NWSL level, it wasn’t a matter of one breakdown or a standout mistake. Collectively, Portland broke down. But as a result, Reign FC had their third lead of the season over their guests. And just like the prior two, Portland’s rivals would never give it up.
Changing things at halftime
There was one stretch where, for a good 15 minutes, it looked like Portland would get back in the match. For 15 more minutes, we convinced ourselves anything could happen, and for 15 minutes after that, we knew it was over. Yet when the team came out after halftime, a new look and energy made their one-goal deficit seem manageable. The Thorns played like they could regain control.
Midge Purce had come off, Katherine Reynolds had come on, and the team changed from their 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 formation to a 3-5-2. With Raso and Caitlin Foord pressing up top, Portland played with new life, creating four shots in the half’s first 11 minutes. Instead of the moments of pensiveness that undermined the Thorns attack over the first 45 minutes, Portland was playing quickly, and aggressively testing their opponents.
Slowly, though, the Reign adjusted. Allie Long started having a bigger impact on the game, winning battles in midfield and finding extra time when on the ball. Beverly Yanez dropped and starting creating battles deeper on the field, upping the physicality of a game that had already produced two yellow cards.
Ultimately, Portland couldn’t take advantage of their moment, and as the Reign made their own changes, the Thorns’ chances diminished. Come the matches’ last 15, it was the home side that was forcing mistakes, and the home side that would score the next goal.
Horan stretchered off; Heath not in the lineup
Lindsey Horan appeared to hurt her right ankle in the first half, but she played on. Early in the second, after a collision with Yanez, Horan picked up a problem with her thigh, one that was later compounded by a low-leg injury to her left side. After a final collision near full time, the 2018 Most Valuable Player had to be stretched from the field, leaving questions as to how much a mentally and emotionally trying day would also take its physical toll.
Her status will only add to worries that began with the starting lineup, one that omitted a familiar name. Tobin Heath, surprisingly, was not in her customary left-wing position. She wasn’t in the day’s 18 at all, having picked up a minor injury before the game. With U.S. internationals set to leave for national team duty soon, it could be some time before we know more about Heath and Horan’s troubles.
Dagny Brynjarsdottir took a nasty elbow to the face, too, spending a long period on the ground early in the second half. At this point, though, the misfortune feels par for the course. Whatever can go wrong for the Thorns seems primed to do so. But there is a break, now - two weeks before Portland’s season resumes. If ever the group needed extra time to collect itself, that time is now.