In their second meeting in as many weeks, the Thorns played the Seattle Reign to a scoreless draw at Providence Park Sunday afternoon, in front of more than 18,000 fans. Our takeaways:
1. Portland has reason to celebrate this draw.
Despite never finding the back of the net, and nabbing one point instead of three, Sunday felt like a victory for the Thorns. So far, this team has faced two major tests: the grueling four-game road trip they returned from last week was one. The second—and this was the big question heading into the season, after last year’s World Cup-related tailspin—was whether they could survive having their roster gutted by national team call-ups. There was talk from both the team and the league about taking steps to reduce the impact of international call-ups between seasons, but due in part to some unexpected absences (Allie Long, Adrianna Franch), and in part to the fact that US Soccer can’t seem to stop scheduling international friendlies during NWSL play, the Thorns’ starting lineup was still cut in half this week. The team muscled through both trials, not unscathed, but still undefeated.
The absences, of course, had an impact. In a sense, the overall feeling of the game was the reverse of certain earlier matches: where before we often saw flashes of genius and heroism punctuated by miscommunication and sloppy turnovers, this week we saw a basically cohesive team without much spark.
Real chances on goal were few and far between, and the ones they got betrayed the relative inexperience of this second-string squad. In the 23rd minute, for example, Celeste Boureille stripped Seattle’s Keelin Winters of the ball in midfield, poking it to Christine Sinclair, who played a beautiful through pass to Haley Raso. For a split second, a goal looked imminent, but Raso hesitated a beat before striking, and the Seattle defense caught up and blocked the shot.
Despite the shortage of finishing power, Portland pulled through. A draw, of course, isn’t a win. But under the circumstances, and against a longtime rival with a history of embarrassing the Thorns at home, it’s something to be proud of.
2. Our defense, thank god, is for real.
The real stars of the show—as has been the case more than once—were Portland’s defenders. Despite losing Emily Sonnett and Meghan Klingenberg, the back line held firm all 90 minutes, limiting Seattle to two shots on goal. The Thorns’ defense is the stingiest in the league, with just four goals conceded all season.
Center back Emily Menges, now in her third season in Portland, is coming to be seen as a veteran on this team (although, like Tobin Heath, she seems surprised by that designation), and her experience shows. Not only was she a one-on-one match for everyone from tough-as-nails Jess Fishlock to lightning-fast Merritt Mathias, she also directed the back line with the precision of an air-traffic controller, keeping them organized against a Reign team that maintained possession for the better part of the game.
Meg Morris, who’s been putting in work on the offensive end in recent games, gave another guts-on-the-field performance at left back, sticking like glue to Kim Little on attack after attack.
Keeper Michelle Betos summed it up: “my defenders didn’t get it,” she said after the game, “but they gave me the roses [for keeping a clean sheet]… and I tried to give them to the back line, because to me, that was such a team effort."
3. These Thorns are going to go far.
Nobody could call Sunday’s performance spectacular, or inspired, but in the face of some pretty long odds, Portland held it together. And holding it together has kind of become Portland’s whole thing this season. At times, it’s looked a lot like luck—like with their nail-biting, eye-popping draw in Washington, or the sloppy season-opening win against Orlando. But seven weeks in, the Thorns are the last undefeated team in the league. And as they keep stringing together results, you start to think that maybe it's not just luck, but more sheer grit, guts and force of will.
After each home game, these players are consistently expressing a deep-seated belief in the group and sense of togetherness. “We have talent,” said Betos, but more than that, “there are people that are going to work for each other… It’s a special locker room, and it’s a special team.”
The challenges aren’t going to stop. The Thorns have some tough games coming up—against league-leading Chicago and a goal-happy Western New York squad—and there will be more absences in the lead-up to the Olympics. But so far, this team is showing they have the grit and mettle to grind out results under hard circumstances.
“I’m incredibly proud,” said coach Mark Parsons. “Probably the proudest I’ve been at the club so far.” Given last week’s high-flying takedown of the Washington Spirit, that’s saying something.
Portland Thorns play Chicago Red Stars June 12. The next home game is June 22.