FARLEY | Progress in the margins of Portland Thorns' close victory over KC

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Thorns are back on top of the NWSL, though by day’s end, the standings could revert. The Orlando Pride were still playing a match against Gotham FC while the Thorns did their ceremonial postgame lap at Providence Park, doing so after a Simone Charley goal elevated them to a 1-0 victory against Kansas City NWSL. If Orlando produced a similar result at home, Portland would be back in second place by the time the players pulled up to their homes.

Whether Portland ended Sunday in first, the standings will reflect the type of progress that June is all about. Games this early in a season shouldn’t be about what a team should be at the end of the year. It should be about the journey, and reaching the next place on it. Was it a performance that helped claim first, or merely kept your time in second? With 16 games left in the season, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether the Thorns, now 4-2-0 (W-L-T), progressed from what they were before.

“Historically, we have struggled after FIFA dates. It’s tough,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said after the game, his team having lost eight players to their national teams during the just-ended international window. “It’s tough for every team, but especially when you have the [Thorns’] number.

“I couldn’t be more proud of how quickly and fast the team came in. It’s a credit to their work before [the break], it’s a credit to their work in preseason and their spirit to fight. Because [the game] was tough at the end. Their spirit to fight and get another clean sheet is really special.”

What the Thorns were before the international break may need some reminding. Prior to their eight departures, Portland gave what Parsons called the team’s “most complete” performance in a 3-0, June 5 victory over visiting Racing Louisville. When he said complete, he didn’t mean the score. The Thorns have already posted a 5-0 margin this season. What he meant was the whistle-to-whistle commitment to what the Thorns are striving for. In the principles beneath their play — the choices that exhibit what the team wants to be — Portland’s game against Louisville was, in Parsons’ view, 2021’s best reflection of Portland.

Sunday wasn’t that, but to hear Parsons tell it, there were reasons for the difference. And good ones, to read his tone. For the second time this season, Kansas City came to Portland and played the Thorns to within a goal. Their 2-1 loss on April 9 opened this year’s Challenge Cup. During their second visit, Kansas City was even better than before, reflecting the progress they’ve made since their NWSL debut. It wasn’t enough to win, but particularly over the course of the second half, it stymied the Thorns.

“There’s never a game in this league where you don’t have to absolutely fight and put everything into a collective performance to try and get the result,” Parsons explained. “The first-half performance after a break like that? Probably one of our best …

“And second half, credit to KC. I thought their higher line, their pressure, their aggressiveness – they took a few more risks in possession and were rewarded with some more momentum. That gave us a picture of trying to make sure we’re defensively clean in and around the box. I thought was did that superbly.”

There was also the heat, oppressive as the teams helped national television with a 1 p.m. kickoff. For a team getting seven players back from international duty, the circumstances weren’t ideal. With Natalia Kuikka (excused absence) and Tyler Lussi (hip injury) also unavailable, the Thorns were short of their usual options. Winning 1-0 wasn’t perfect, but it was explicable.

The scoreline also didn’t reflect the chances the Thorns had, particularly in the first half. An early cross for Charley saw a great chance saved near the goalline. KC’s Abby Smith would rob Charley of another chance in later in the half, when the Thorns exploited their guests’ high defensive line to put their striker through on goal. In between, Portland forced KC into a penalty that, taken by Christine Sinclair, was subsequently saved.

In terms of expected goals, it was a lopsided day, largely because of those first-half chances. The Thorns bested Kansas City’s xG, 3.53 to 0.94. Even if the final score didn’t reflect it, the process was working for Portland.

“Of course, we’ve had a few games where the ball doesn’t go in, and maybe we start to get desperate,” Parsons said, citing his team’s recent losses to OL Reign and Orlando. “But I’m really proud that that didn’t happen. The fact that we’d missed chances [against Kansas City] and get an important one right before the break, I think that shows growth.”

There was growth in terms of perseverance, needed because the finishing wasn’t there. But on other days, that should even out, or break in the Thorns’ favor. That’s when you’ll get your 5-0 and your 3-0 results. On the off days, though, when the goals don’t arrive in hand with chances, teams still need to win matches. Progress comes from seeing games out.

In that respect, the best reference point to judge Sunday’s Thorns performance by probably isn’t June 5’s against Louisville. The better comparison is May 8’s Challenge Cup final against Gotham. That day, Portland posted 3.9 expected goals but allowed their guests to stay within reach. If was 1-0 well into the second half. Gotham, who finished the game with 1.8 goals, eventually scored an equalizer and was able to take that title game to penalty kicks. Though Portland ended up winning, Challenge Cup was nearly lost because they didn’t see out their 1-0 result.

Kansas City never came as close, and while Sunday’s win may not have felt as nice as the last time the Thorns were at home, there was still progress in the margins. There’ll be more games like this over the course of the season. As they did on Sunday, Portland will have to see them out.

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