PORTLAND, Ore. — Three games into the 2021 season, and Portland Thorns FC have clinched a spot in a cup final. Talk about early returns.
Part of that fortune is the NWSL scheduling the second edition of its Challenge Cup at the start of the season. Part of it, though, is how well the Thorns have played. With their 2-0 win on Wednesday night over visiting OL Reign, Portland ran their Challenge Cup record to 3-0-0, clinched first place in the tournament’s West division, and locked-in a spot in the competition’s May 8 final.
“To be able to say that we're going to a final this early is a goal of the group,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons explained, “but I think mentally is the most important [part]. Because we have to keep growing, and we need to be in big games and experience big games to try to execute who we are under the most pressure. And this provides us that opportunity to do so.”
Goals from Lindsey Horan and Simone Charley on each side of halftime highlighted a performance that exemplified a soccer cliché: comprehensive. Reign generated a chance early, heading a cross on target from just beyond the Thorns’ six-yard box in the third minute, but from there, Portland asserted control.
The team ended the night with 29 shots. That’s a huge total, but for the Thorns, it’s especially notable. Over the course of recent seasons, Portland has been more of a quality over quantity team. In last week’s 1-0 win over Chicago, the team only registered eight shots. But with their full team assembled — Portland’s internationals having returned to the team over the weekend — the Thorns nearly quadrupled that total, while also recording 10 shots on target.
This wasn’t just a quantity play, though. Only six of those shots came from outside of the penalty area - one of which, Horan’s in the 17th minutes, resulted in the game’s opening goal. Only four came off headed balls, partly because Portland played a relatively modest 16 open-play crosses.
“What we can already see is that when this team trains together and we clean some odd things up, this could have been a really scary night,” Parsons said. “It's a very, very dominant performance. Obviously, the result is a little bit closer. It could have been bigger.”
Compared to the Reign, Portland looked like a team at a different point of their process – a team still leveraging the momentum they carried out of the trophy-winning performance of 2020’s Fall Series. The Reign, on the other hand, are where a team normally is at two games into their season.
Whenever OL Reign won possession, Thorns FC pressed in unison, limiting their rivals of 71.3 percent completed passes. The Reign weren’t ruled offside all match, largely because they were rarely in position to threaten Portland’s defense. The team only had three shots on target, only one of which came over the match’s final hour.
They’re going to improve. Megan Rapinoe and Jessica Fishlock, arguably the team’s two best players, played limited minutes. Key pieces like Lauren Barnes and Allie Long weren’t in the lineup at all, while star German playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsán won’t arrive until closer to summer. Only then will the Reign truly be able to build toward their potential. Portland, on the other hand, appear speeding toward theirs.
“We're not where we want to be just yet,” midfielder Crystal Dunn conceded after her Thorns debut. “We're still in that right-after-preseason mode, where we're building and building and building.
“But I’m really pleased with the team's performance. The energy was there. The ethic was there to just want to win the ball back and go ahead and go ahead. It was incredible.”
So, this isn’t exactly what Portland wants to be. There were a couple of pieces missing, with Rocky Rodríguez on limited minutes while Emily Menges didn’t play at all. And as Parsons said, the team could have won by a more comfortable margin. But for a group that was largely playing their first game together — with players like AD Franch, Becky Sauerbrunn, Natalia Kuikka, Crystal Dunn and Sophia Smith in the same starting lineup for the first time as Thorns — it was a spectacular start.
The Thorns get a small break now before their final group-stage game - a match in Houston on May 2 that will give them a chance to host Challenge Cup’s final. Once there, though, two storylines unfold in parallel. There’s the path to May 8, and how prepared Portland will be to claim this year’s Cup, but there’s also the path that covers the rest of the season. The 2021 campaign will be defined both by what the Thorns could win and how good the team could become.