PORTLAND, Ore. - Choose your own adventure - how you want to look at the Portland Thorns' regular-season finale against the visiting Washington Spirit:
You can choose to look at the team's 83rd-minute chance as emblematic of the entire evening: a ball fired through the six-yard box by Midge Purce that wasn't met by a far-post run. There was also a close-range chance three minutes later, put over the bar by Purce, as well as the breakaway a minute after that which, having failed, left the crowd decrying the lead official's non-call. For much of the night, and especially over the match's last hour, Portland monopolized the game's play, control, and chances, yet the game ultimately ended as it started, 0-0. They delivered everything except what mattered most.
But for a team that had entered the night desperate for positives, you could also look at the process beneath the result. That's choice number two. A 21-5 edge in shots, with the Spirit only registering a single try over the game's final 45 minutes. In terms of chances on target, Portland recorded five to Washington's one. They collected 550 passes, possessed the ball 55.8 percent of the night, and had nine corner kicks to their guest's zero. None of that translated to the scoreboard, but in terms of making progress toward game 25 - of putting the team in a better place to compete in next weekend's semifinal at the Chicago Red Stars - Saturday was unquestionably a step forward.
"I feel like, after tonight, we're on the rise," Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said, "but I still feel like we get to have this chip on our shoulder. We have a point to prove going into a semifinal on the road next week."
Parsons has made his choice. For him, Saturday was progress. But for those who were looking for something more definitive, or an outcome that made a bigger impact on the standings, there's room to quibble, if not outright doubt. For a game which Parsons described on Monday as "must win," the Thorns only drew. However, if the standard is closer to what defender Emily Menges espoused on Tuesday, one defined by recapturing "momentum," the glass is closer to half-full.
The choice is yours. In some respects, there's no wrong answer. Saturday can be both a sign of progress and, in a way, not quite enough. For either point of view, though, here's What We'll Remember most from 2019's Game 24:
Getting reacquainted with a new, old look
The Thorns have had no problem switching formations throughout the year, with the 5-3-2 the team used to claim the 2017 title occasionally appearing during a season of mostly four-defender approaches. On Saturday, the five-back reappeared, though, allowing Tobin Heath and Christine Sinclair to pair together as forwards, Andressinha to return to the midfield, and Emily Ogle to get her first NWSL start.
The setup was part of the reason Washington, aside from some early half-chances, failed to significantly threaten Adrianna Franch's goal. It was also why, over the match's first 30 minutes, the Thorns looked like they were trying to get comfortable in a new coat. With players working on their spacing, telling each other where they expected the other to be, Portland needed a moment to get right. The chances that came in bunches in the second half were absent over the first half-hour.
The Thorns may have finished with 21 shots, but only one of those came in the game's first 30 minutes.
Pressure behind the dam
Once the clock hit the 30-minute mark, Portland's play started to come together, so much so that the team looked destined to break through after the break. When the teams left the field for intermission, it didn't feel like a question of if. The only doubts where when and how often.
Obviously, those assumptions proved foolish, with Washington's Aubrey Bledsoe playing a huge part in the leaving the Thorns empty handed. Throughout the opening part of the second half, Bledsoe continuously imposed herself on her 18-yard box, coming off her line to attack the crosses teams continue to use to tease out errors from the Spirit `keeper. Over the last two years, Bledsoe's improvement has made her errors less and less frequent. On Saturday, she made the Thorns change course.
Portland was better for it, eventually using Purce's speed down the right flank to create their best chances, but come full time, Bledsoe got her reward. The Spirit would be flying home empty handed without her work.
Eyes on Chicago, soon
Even before the match kicked off, next week's destination was set in stone. On Sunday, Oct. 20, the Thorns will visit a team that's defeated them once in seven years, with spot in a third-straight championship game on the line. Yet somehow, even after the game, that match seemed so far off.
Before the Thorns can think about Chicago, they have to pause and think about themselves. There's no point in shifting focus toward the Red Stars until, at some point soon, the team knows whether to believe in itself. Over a month that's seen the team struggle for goals and drop big games against its two closest rivals, that belief has been undermined. Was Saturday enough to restore the group's confidence?
It could be. At least, there's a formula there, one that has four elements. Combine Saturday's underlying execution with an additional week's work, add in the team's history against Chicago and the faith in the group's talent, and you have reason to believe in next Sunday's outcome. That belief, though, has to be there before the semifinal kicks off.