If this was a normal season, Portland Thorns FC would have probably been happy with Saturday night’s result. Sure, the 1-1 draw at Utah Royals FC wasn’t ideal, and even in the underlying play, there was something different, more muted about Portland’s performance. There was a verve to the Thorns’ 4-1 win on Wednesday at home against OL Reign, as well as to their 3-0 win over Utah nine days before that. That verve didn’t make its way to Utah.
But the team had played only three days earlier. Then they had to regroup, travel, and play 90 minutes at altitude against a team that had more rest. In normal times, this was a game where the schedule would be conspiring against them. Getting any result would be an accomplishment.
“They're real factors,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said when asked about the short rest, travel and altitude. “It's more than the Wednesday turnaround. We emptied the tank against Seattle. Last game at Providence Park, it was always going to be big. We prioritized giving [the players] the rest and the recovery, and clearly didn't re-amp them up enough, but there just wasn't time …
“The mentality of the players was incredible. You could absolutely tell. We weren't moving the same. The touch of players wasn't the same. It’s expected.”
Consider how the Thorns started each half. It was as if they needed extra time to shake aches out of their system. In the first, that led to Portland falling behind early, with Amy Rodriguez converting on Utah’s second dangerous chance of the opening 10 minutes. Though the Thorns had most of the good chances over the rest of the period, the Royals were again the better team when the teams came out of the locker rooms, crafting multiple chances for Rodriguez to double the hosts’ lead.
Beyond those beginnings, many of the best chances were created by the Thorns. Sophia Smith was the author of multiple in the first half, with Morgan Weaver nearly the beneficiary in the 12th minute. But Portland was also able to get Lindsey Horan forward from midfield, target her with crosses, and create chances off her aerial prowess. That formula nearly produced an equalizer in the 33rd minute, with Utah’s Abby Smith barely able to keep a Christine Sinclair shot from crossing the line at the far post.
In the second half, Horan’s impact shifted to ground, with her most important contribution coming in the 59th minute. Forcing Smith to act on a cross from the left flank, Horan started a sequence that ended with Sinclair’s fourth goal in two games, with the Thorns captain finishing into a nearly-abandoned goal after Simone Charley put Horan’s ball back toward goal.
“All things considered, I think people showed a lot of grit,” defender Emily Menges said. “We showed a different side of our team, today, that we didn't have to show the last two games, which is that kind of intensity, the grit, the strong mentality. I think that was cool to see.”
Between being on the road and having to face talents like Rodriguez and attacking midfielder Vero Boquete, the Thorns defense was tested more on Saturday than it had been over Fall Series’ first two games. Depending on where you focus, there was evidence for both confidence and questions. In terms of bottom lines, Portland kept Utah off the scoreboard for the match’s final 81 minutes. In terms of chances, though, goalkeeper Britt Eckerstom’s interventions were needed to keep the match 1-1.
“It felt like we did a really good job once we had got in trouble,” Parsons said of his defense. “A-Rod, when we prepared for her in the first game, I told my young forwards if you ever have spare time, watch A-Rod, because she has some of the best movement, and she is one of the most effective forwards in this league. Her intelligence, one-touch play, back to goal, in behind, finishing ability. Britt came up absolutely big time with some big, big stops.”
To the extent Portland’s performance qualifies as growth will determine how successful the night was for the Thorns. Given the constraints on the team’s preparation – that short rest, travel, altitude trifecta – another three-goal win was always unlikely. So in some sense, getting a draw is an accomplishment by itself. Results for the Fall Series were never going to be as important as the process, yet even there, the process is hard to judge. On Saturday, the challenge was much greater than the Thorns saw at home. It’s understandable the results weren’t as decisive.
But those challenges might be why we should buy into the night’s progress. In the face of factors this Thorns group had yet to see this season, they performed reasonably well. They made mistakes early, corrected their course, found a second-half equalizer and put themselves in position to earn three points. True, they ultimately did not get all of those points. In fact, there were moments where Utah came close to a second goal. But the mentality the team showed to persist, adjust and, over the course of the game, improve is important. Those are all qualities the team will need to show next season.
“For me, it was a big step forward,” Parsons said. “A pretty big step forward …”
For Menges, “Walking away with a tie right now, during the Fall Series, is not what we want,” but that standard may be a high one. At a minimum, it shouldn’t be the only standard. While the circumstances of the game meant the team could, with better finishing, have produced another multi-goal performance, the one-goal night shouldn’t detract from the good. The good was, despite a number of reasons to succumb, the Thorns still leaving Utah with a result.