Caitlin Foord, Thorns FC at Orlando Pride, 05.11.19

It didn’t start well, with the Portland Thorns conceding a goal early in first game after their initial World Cup departures, but head coach Mark Parsons couldn’t have asked for more from the response he saw. Taking control of Saturday’s match in Orlando after Toni Pressley’s 10th-minute opener, Portland claimed their second victory of the season, leveraging goals from Dagny Brynjarsdóttir, Andressinha and Caitlin Foord to claim a weather-prolonged, 3-1 victory at Orlando City Stadium.

It was the game most would have expected from two teams on different courses, the Thorns having yet to lose a game this season while Orlando’s only escaped the loss column once. Over the first 10 minutes, though, the teams appeared to be equals, with the home team using that balanced status to earn and convert on an early corner kick. When Pressley beat the returning Emily Menges at goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom’s left post, Orlando had their second goal of the season.

Yet as unwavering as Portland was two weeks ago, when they had to overcome an early two-goal deficit at Sky Blue FC, the Thorns were again tonight, seeing out an initial resettling period after Pressley’s goal before pushing Orlando deeper into the hosts’ half. Slowly assuming control of the game, Portland broke through in the 28th minute, with Brynjarsdóttir converting the rebound of a Celeste Boureille shot.

Andressinha buried the game-winner eight minutes later, the Thorns having earned a free kick after Orlando’s Rachel Hill fouled Ellie Carpenter at the edge of the 18-yard box. Unable to come up with a response, the Pride saw their guests maintain control into the second half, where Foord converted in the 57th minute after a deflected cross fell to her in the box.

Were it not for a Haley Kopmeyer save on a Foord penalty kick, the scoreline would have been worse, though it would have probably been more in line with how the final 80 minutes were played. As was the case four weeks ago, when the Thorns controlled play during a 2-0 victory at Orlando, there was a compulsory feeling to how most of the game played out. Even after falling behind early, the Thorns were methodical, dispassionate, yet aggressive, as if the process of defeating Orlando was more important than the final result. Each goal sparked celebration but enhanced a sense of inevitability, as if there was no other way today’s match could have unfolded.

It takes only a quick thought of two weeks ago to remember that, while the feel around the game may have hinted one thing, the result could have been much different. To think today’s final score was inevitable would be an insult to both teams, and as the near-hour-long weather delay 90 seconds into second-half stoppage time reminded us, every game becomes unique, at some point. At any moment, had the Thorns switched off, our feeling could have become a lie, and the uncertainty of the last two matches could have resurfaced.

Instead, the Thorns continue their week on the road having moved to 2-0-2, albeit with an important point of context required. In their two wins, the Thorns have scored five times, conceded only once, and never had to play outside of Orlando City Stadium. Half of their four games have been against what is to date the worst team in the league. In the other two games, the Thorns have scored six times, conceded six times, and seen two results added to their draw column.

Next weekend’s game at the Washington Spirit will give us a better idea of how the Thorns stack up against the rest of the NWSL. With seven points in four games, the Spirit seem markedly improved on a year ago. Until then, though, Portland fans can take solace in their team’s incremental improvements.

After a second-straight slow start, the team again responded, this time doing enough to take three points instead of one. And while four years have been spent fretting about how the Thorns will manage their World Cup absences, the first returns are positive ones, with significant losses in attack and defense not leading to significantly worse results.

We have had to wait an extra 50 minutes, or so, to get those returns. But those returns keep the Thorns’ 2019 on course. Even amid a series of wobbles, the Thorns have navigated four road games without a loss.