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In the first half of Portland’s 3-2 win against San Diego Wave FC on Sunday afternoon, the Thorns made it quite clear as to what they hope their offense looks like when everything is clicking.

On either wing is Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, both willing and able to run at defenders and create chaos out wide. Centrally, Christine Sinclair’s resumé speaks for itself, while she has Rocky Rodriguez and Hina Sugita behind her in midfield.

It’s an attack that's meant to encourage fluidity and fill attackers with confidence – easily adaptable based on the game and opponent. And while it’s still a work in progress considering how early in the year it is, the Thorns put up three first-half goals against the Wave and seem to be clicking on all cylinders offensively as the 2022 regular season looms.

“This is still the learning phase for this team,” coach Rhian Wilkinson said. “We unveiled a new structure today. There’s so much that we can take away from this game that will be critical moving forward. Absolutely, the forward-looking piece has got to come first.”

With all that firepower it didn’t take Portland long to get on the board against San Diego. Just four minutes into the afternoon, Smith received the ball on the left side of the box on a switch from Weaver, took a couple touches and drove the ball into the far side of the net with her left foot. The goal marked her third of the Challenge Cup.

Another one of Smith’s dangerous opportunities early in the first half showcased the fluidity the Thorns want to play with in attack. While her opening goal came on the left, in the 10th minute she received the ball on the right side of the field and put a shot on frame that forced a reaction save out of San Diego goalkeeper Carly Telford.

The Thorns also introduced a new structure on Sunday: the 4-3-3, which Wilkinson said she really started to apply over the two-week break between games. In that setup, the front three of Weaver, Smith and Sinclair started up top. At other times, Smith found herself alone up top with Weaver, Sinclair and Rodriguez behind her – just another sign of tactical fluidity that Portland wants to employ this season.

“We’re bedding in layers of the tactics that I would like to use throughout the season,” Wilkinson said. “To have two weeks without a game when the internationals went, I felt like it was the right time to deliver a new structure.”

Sugita finished the afternoon with a brace – her first two goals as a Thorn – and both came as a result of the team’s endless pressure and movement. Her first goal came on a diving header as she pounced on a Sinclair shot that rebounded off the top of the goal and into her path.

Then, in the 41st minute, Portland’s sustained possession around San Diego’s penalty box resulted in multiple attempts on goal before Sugita put the ball into the back of the net off a pass from Sinclair.

“I like Portland very much, and I was happy to score two goals,” Sugita said through a translator. “I was more than excited that we won today though, so that’s what I was really happy about.”

Added Wilkinson: “I think if you watched her the last few games, this is what she’s been doing. … She’s finding herself in good pockets. I think last game she did have some opportunities to shoot, and she tried to pass. I think she’s just gaining confidence every game and did very well today.”

The Thorns outshot the Wave 16-4 with seven shots on goal as they raced out to a 3-0 lead. At times it even felt like one-way traffic for a team that looks fully prepared for the rigors of the regular season. But the second half proved that there is more work to be done. While the offense continued to show sparks, the defense allowed two goals – including one in the first minute following halftime – which allowed the Wave to storm back in the second half.

“We were up three-nothing and we let in two goals within a pretty short span of time,” midfielder Sam Coffey said. “The messaging at halftime was ‘hold the standard, don’t get too comfortable’ and we were flat. We didn’t hold up that standard, the Thorns standard.”

As San Diego’s pressure increased, Portland’s offense couldn’t get on the ball as much as it would have liked; still it proved dangerous when it had opportunities. Despite not finding the back of the net again after Sugita’s strike right before halftime, it was the offense, after all, that gave the Thorns just enough of a margin to ensure three points at home.

With 10 points through its five Challenge Cup matches, the Thorns find themselves three points behind OL Reign with one game left to play. While unlikely that Portland qualifies for the Challenge Cup semifinals as a first-place lock, a win against Angel City FC on Apr. 24 in Los Angeles guarantees Wilkinson’s team a spot as the best second-place team.

Regardless of what happens in LA, the Thorns’ offense seems to be rounding into form at the right time. On Sunday afternoon, Thorns fans saw the best of what it can be in a dynamic first half.