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Image: Eric Cech

In front of a season-high crowd, the Thorns got a 1-0 win against the Seattle Reign, without the help of their national team players. Our three takeaways from the game:

1. The win took a little luck, and a little heroism.

Going in to this game, things didn’t look good for the Thorns. They were thumped two weeks ago by a second-to-last place Houston side. They had nobody, since the departure of the team’s core at the end of June, who could reliably put the ball in the back of the net. The back line, rock-solid for the first half of the season, had looked like Swiss cheese since Meghan Klingenberg and Emily Sonnett’s departure for national team camp.

Making things worse, Seattle—though a far cry from the terrifying machine they were last season—has been looking better and better. Japanese international Naho Kawasumi, with a buttery smooth touch and a nose for goals, was a clutch addition in mid-June, bringing back some of the offensive spark the Reign had been missing.

And the Reign, were, overall, the better team, taking 11 shots to Portland’s five. On a few occasions, it was blind luck, along with some goalkeeping heroics from Michelle Betos, that kept Scottish magician Kim Little from scoring. But Portland held it together under pressure, putting together some decent stretches of possession and getting a few looks on goal. Finally, in the 74th minute, Mana Shim played a brilliant long ball that found Nadia Nadim’s head just outside the six-yard line for a goal.

“In the last few weeks,” said coach Mark Parsons after the game, “we looked like we had at the beginning of the season… The way we defended, people could find spaces and opportunities.” Much like the starting team did early in the season, this secondary lineup finally started to gel Saturday night. While it was, of course, still obvious that this group doesn’t have the same insane level of talent as that starting squad, they put up a legitimate fight from the beginning, thanks in large part to some important tactical adjustments.

2. Five defenders got the job done.

The major visible change from the Houston game two weeks ago was the decision to move Celeste Boureille to the back line for a five-woman defense. Parsons didn’t directly answer when asked if the idea was merely to hold Seattle scoreless and play for a draw. He did explain how the extra defender helped patch up some holes. “You look at Houston, Kansas City, the games we’ve conceded goals,” he said, “and we’ve been getting beaten in wide areas.”

“The back five gave us a chance to man-mark,” explained Parsons. “We could man-mark when the ball’s [out wide] and still keep a back four.” Indeed, Seattle was mostly forced to attack centrally—which very nearly worked several times, largely thanks to Little’s brilliance on the ball. But overall, the defense was much, much stronger than it had been against Houston or Kansas City.

The Thorns also succeeded in using a more direct attacking style than they often do. “We had to put the ball in the air and put the back four under pressure,” Parsons said. “They hadn’t dealt with crosses, they hadn’t dealt with long balls into the box all season. And you see where the goals come from.”

3. Providence Park was lit.

The Thorns drew a crowd of 19,231, their best turnout of the season. That’s more than the Timbers got on Sunday. It’s also, needless to say, more than any other women’s club in the world gets for regular-season matches, by a wide margin. That turnout, and the electric atmosphere that comes with it, plainly drives the team. “I get the chills even thinking about it,” Shim said. “It was the best atmosphere we’ve had, and I think that drove us when we got the goal, and after that especially, just holding the lead.”

Let’s be clear: this is special. The Thorns are a special team, and Portland, right now, is a special time and place for this sport. If you aren’t watching, you should be.

The Thorns go on the road against the Seattle Reign August 27. Their next home game is September 4 against the Boston Breakers.

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