An own-goal in the 64th minute downs Portland on the road in San Diego.
It was the first UKG NWSL Challenge Cup game of the year. The matchup in San Diego on Wednesday night showcased two of the top three clubs in league play. The Portland Thorns made their first visit to Snapdragon Stadium to face San Diego Wave FC for the sixth time across all competitions, and third in the Challenge Cup.
Having played the Houston Dash in league play just five days earlier, head coach Mike Norris opted for some changes to his starting line-up while maintaining his 4-3-3 form. Third-year goalkeeper Shelby Hogan put on the gloves and was given the assignment of holding down Portland's goal, giving Bella Bixby some midweek rest. In the defense, Kelli Hubly was the only returning backliner, leading the defense with Natalia Kuikka, Meaghan Nally, and 2023 NWSL draft fifth overall pick Reyna Reyes at her sides. Portland's midfield was completely revamped from the weekend, featuring Christine Sinclair wearing the captain's armband, Taylor Porter, and Rocky Rodriguez on the field for the initial whistle. On the attack, the 2022 NWSL MVP Sophia Smith spearheaded the offensive trident with Hina Sugita to her right, and making her Thorns debut Canadian international (and Manchester United loanee) Adriana Leone on the left wing.
In what is becoming a recurrent tale in 2023, the Thorns owned possession in the first 25 minutes and were aggressive on the attack right away. By the 8th minute San Diego's keeper Kailen Sheridan was already being tested. Debutant Adriana Leon fired a right footed curler in search of Sheridan's left upper 90, however the Wave FC keeper would dive for the catching save.
On the defensive side, leftback Reyna Reyes showed exactly why Portland called her name with the 5th pick in the draft earlier this year. Her lockdown defense and ball tracking prevented various San Diego runs down her left flank starting in the 10th minute, and progressively over the next 35. Shelby Hogan also showed her poise under her three posts, making some calm saves throughout the first half that kept her sheet clean.
Portland nearly found the opener in the 18th on a beautiful ball from Rocky Rodriguez that found Sophia Smith in the right corner of the six-yard box. Smith rang a right-footed shot that was saved by Sheridan. Six minutes later Sophia Smith had another opportunity, in what would be the most dangerous of the first half. A Canadian link up down the right wing, Adriana Leon sent a through pass towards the touchline for Christine Sinclair. The Thorns captain placed a cutback pass into the path of an oncoming Smith who with a right-footed swing connected with the ball with just a little too much power, sending it over the crossbar.
Shelby Hogan again showed her confident and collected skills just a few minutes before halftime with a point-blank save in the edge of the six-yard box. San Diego right-winger Rachel Hill went 1v1 with Hogan and as the Thorns keeper stepped off her line to meet her, Hill fired at her. Hogan calmly made herself big and with an outstretched arm deflected the ball. The play was called dead soon after for an offside, however Hogan's tending proved that in Bixby's absence, Portland's goal was in just as good hands.
Following the final whistle on a 0-0 first half, Sophia Smith recognized that the Thorns had chances, and just needed to convert.
"I think our team has a lot more in us, we had a few chances we need to put away but i think we are creating good things," said Smith. "We just need to do that more often and just be on the front foot more".
The second half brought a change up front. In an effort to conserve the 2023 MVP leading candidate, Mike Norris made the decision to bring Sophia Smith off at the break, and inserted Hannah Betfort into the head of the attack.
As the second half commenced, it would be Natalia Kuikka and Adriana Leon knocking on San Diego's door early on. Kuikka had a shot saved in the 50th minute and Leon forced a corner kick following a dipping low blast from just outside the box on her left wing two minutes later.
In an unfortunate series of events, the Thorns went down 1-0 in the 64th minute via an own goal. While attempting to defend a Wave FC cross coming down from the right corner of the box, Thorns defender Meaghan Nally deflected a clearance attempt into her own net. In response to the opening goal, Mike Norris quickly executed a three-player sub, bringing on Morgan Weaver, Olivia Moultrie, and Emily Menges for Reyes, Leon, and Sinclair in search of an equalizer.
Portland's search for their opener intensified in the 81st minute. Moultrie orchestrated an offensive push that found second-half substitute Izzy D'Aquila running down the right wing. D'Aquila curled a cross into the box that Betfort headed just wide-right of San Diego's goal. Hina Sugita would give it a try in the 85th minute following a Weaver rebound. Her volley off the bounce would be saved by Sheridan.
In the end, the own-goal would be the only difference maker in the tightly contested match. San Diego's compact defense being the difference maker, despite Portland's offensive output. Thorns will shake the result off and shift focus to league play and the next UKG NWSL Challenge Cup match scheduled for May 31 at Providence Park against Angel City FC.
Following the match Portland travels back home for a week 4 battle at Providence Park with Racing Louisville FC on Saturday April 22. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30pm.