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The Portland Thorns versus the Orlando Pride.

Image: ISI Photos

The Thorns opened their fourth season in dramatic fashion last night, with a hard-fought 2-1 win against the NWSL’s newest expansion club, the Orlando Pride. Some 16,000 fans showed up to watch Alex Morgan’s return to Portland after the Thorns traded her to Orlando this fall. Here are our three takeaways from last night's match:

1. That was a nailbitingly exciting game, but things sure got messy.

From the opening whistle, this was an action-packed, occasionally contentious match, played between two talented if not yet cohesive teams. A sizable chunk of the Pride’s roster are former Thorns, and many of those players tested Portland mightily, with Australian defender Steph Catley scoring and USWNT forward Alex Morgan getting five shots off.

But the Thorns’ off-season acquisitions were in fine form: Icelandic international Dagny Brynjarsdottir scored a tidy goal in the 25th minute, and Lindsey Horan, the 21-year-old wunderkind who signed with Paris Saint-Germain instead of going to college, scored in the second half, looking both tough and smart throughout the game.

From the Thorns’ perspective, there was some exasperation with the officiating. In particular, an Allie Long goal in the 51st minute was contentiously called offside (it was a very close call). There was also this, which, for some reason, was called as a foul against Tobin Heath. Both teams incurred two yellow cards, one on Meghan Klingenberg for delaying play on a free kick late in the match. Orlando’s Kaylyn Kyle—also a former Thorn—was booked for a hard tackle against Heath, which, to an extent, is understandable. It’s tempting to foul Heath, because her speed and preternatural skill on the ball frightens and confuses opponents. On that note…

2. Tobin Heath has positioned herself squarely at the center of this team, whether she wants to admit it or not.

With Christine Sinclair nursing an injury, Heath wore the captain’s armband last night. She stepped onto the field to a deafening roar from the crowd, and as is her wont, she was everywhere at once during the game, notching assists on both of the Thorns’ goals. The technical term, I think, for the second one—a deft first touch off a lofted ball—is poetical.

Asked about her leadership role on the team, Heath insisted: “The armband belongs to Sinc. She’s our captain.” Nobody disagrees. But even she (proclaiming, at three years shy of 30, “I’m OLD”) recognizes she’s become one of the team’s veterans. “I feel like it’s about time I step up and take that responsibility, and it’s something I’m enjoying. I hope it enlarges the group… and I hope it brings more to my game as well.”

Coach Mark Parsons was blunter. “She’s a special, special player," he said. "At halftime, the third or fourth thing I said was, ‘We’ve got fucking Tobin Heath.’ When we get her the ball, special things happen.”

3. This is a team still trying to find their legs.

As previously discussed, this crop of Thorns is an outrageously talented bunch, and it showed last night. But it also showed that most of the starters have only been playing together for about a month. Moments of brilliance were repeatedly cut short by sloppy mistakes and miscommunication, and for much of the game, the attack wasn’t quite there: by the half, the team had tallied just three shots to the Pride’s seven.

In the second half, the Thorns fell into more of a rhythm, putting together more chances and hammering home the game-winning goal in the 82nd minute. But both Parsons and the players agreed they need to be better. “You saw ideas, you saw bits of momentum, and then you saw a lot of chaos,” said Parsons. Too often, Portland looked like a collection of skilled individuals instead of a team.

Still, Parsons is optimistic. “What does it look like in a few months? We’re going to be a team that people won’t want to play.” We'll be watching.

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