Portland came from behind for the second week in a row to snag a 2–1 win over New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC. With much of their starting lineup in national team camps, the remaining players had extra work to do. Our three takeaways from the game:
1. The match was an exciting battle from the start
Despite their starting lineup gutted by Olympic call-ups, the Thorns made a competent showing Saturday night, and the game was a back-and-forth contest from the start. Sky Blue got a number of chances early in the game, with Mallory Weber struggling to contain speedy forward Leah Galton. In the 29th minute, Galton got a cross around Weber, which Taylor Lytle knocked back to Tasha Kai, who neatly tapped home a goal.
But the Thorns had been pushing for goals just as hard, and eight minutes after Kai’s goal, Portland answered, with a Dagny Brynjarsdottir getting her head on a Nadia Nadim corner kick. In the second half, Hayley Raso earned a penalty after she beat Erin Simon into the box and Simon knocked her over from behind. Nadim took the kick, and—unlike Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Müller earlier in the day—didn’t miss.
“I think it’s a good start, but we need to improve,” coach Mark Parsons said, summing up the kickoff to Portland’s four-game stretch without its national team starters. On one hand, they looked as aggressive and determined on the attack as they have all season. “I think we look good going forward on the break tonight, and we got some good opportunities,” Parsons said. “We could’ve put a few more away.” On the other hand, the defense definitely suffered with the loss of Emily Sonnett and Meghan Klingenberg, and Sky Blue got into dangerous territory way too many times. This was an important win, but a nerve-wracking one.
2. This didn’t look like a team of bench players.
With key players missing all over the field, both the bench and the remaining starters stepped up. Nadim, after a spotty start this season, has more than settled in. She pushed ruthlessly for goals, firing off an impressive seven shots—which looks especially good considering she had just 13 for the season going into the game. Nadim linked up well with Hayley Raso, with each player serving balls to the other at different points in the game.
In midfield, perennial fan favorite Mana Shim played her best game of the season, slotting into Christine Sinclair’s role well. She did some tough defensive work, and showed good vision in distributing the ball to Nadim and Raso. Celeste Boureille, a walk-on who earned a contract early in the season, also impressed. Unsurprisingly, Amandine Henry continued to show she has steel in her spine and ice in her veins: despite the oft-repeated truism that French soccer is smart and technical, where American soccer is brutish and physical, Henry was probably the most effectively physical player on the field Saturday.
3. Parsons is totally serious about the power of positivity.
As we saw last week against Orlando, this is a team with a never-say-die attitude—regardless of who’s on the field—and they showed that Saturday. “I’m really happy with the reaction of going down a goal psychologically,” said Parsons, “and I don’t think that’s ever going to be any different. We’re a very strong group.” It has to be said that Parsons himself seems to be the source of that attitude.
It’s easy to spout clichés about teamwork and drive, especially when you’re at the helm of a team of international stars. The thing about Parsons is that he really seems to believe every word of it—and that means more when his team keeps getting results with most of those stars gone. The Thorns are showing, one game at a time, that their remarkable run this year isn’t just the result of a ridiculous amount of talent, which they’ve had before. A piece of that success is also Parsons’s proven knack for getting the best out of all his players; this is the guy who took the Washington Spirit to back-to-back playoff appearances when he took over after their last-place 2013 season. You can see how he gets that out of his teams when he shows this kind of unfakeable, infectious excitement.
The Thorns will have to work hard in the next three weeks if they want keep their unbeaten streak going. Hopefully, their coach’s enthusiasm will continue to rub off on them.
The Thorns play FC Kansas City at Providence Park on Saturday, July 9.