Portland Thorns Bring it Home for a 'Very Special Night'

The Thorns dominate the Washington Spirit at home.

By Katelyn Best May 24, 2016

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The Thorns smashed the previously unbeaten Washington Spirit Saturday night in a beautifully executed 4–1 win. Our takeaways from the game:

1. Portland cemented their place at the top of the league.

To put it simply, the Thorns thrashed the top-ranked Spirit from top to bottom. Portland has been on the road for four straight games—a difficult, sometimes ugly stretch—and the team we saw Saturday at Providence Park was not the same one that debuted against Orlando in April. This was a team that had, somewhere over that series of road trips, transformed into something monstrous and beautiful.

“I told the players at the beginning, there’s going to be good nights and special nights,” said coach Mark Parsons, “and this was a very special night.”

While we’ve known all along that these Thorns count some enormous talents among them, this was the first game that they finally, convincingly solidified into a cohesive unit. Lindsey Horan’s eye-popping tackles and Tobin Heath’s dazzling aptitude for pantsing defenders reliably led to promising attacks; Katherine Reynolds and Meghan Klingenberg, always tough and tenacious, translated grit into legitimate stopping power. These players got to know each other over the last month, and it shows.

Perhaps the most striking contrast between this game and the one in Washington two weeks ago was in how the Thorns handled Crystal Dunn. The last time the two teams met, the blisteringly quick forward spent 90 minutes sneaking into the box at will, and it felt like sheer luck that she never found the back of the net. This week, Portland, taking a cue from Public Enemy, shut Dunn down before she could get started. The Spirit simply couldn’t get a convincing attack going—they didn’t even get a shot off until the second half.

Heath and Horan each tallied a goal—Heath breezily chipping keeper Stephanie Labbe in extra time—and Heath nabbed another assist to maintain her top-of-the-league status. But neither player had to put the team on their back to the extent they did in the first couple games, thanks in large part to the return of another key component:

2. Christine Sinclair is back in a big way.

Working her way back from an Achilles injury, the Thorns’ longtime captain made her first start of the season this Saturday, and her influence was palpable. Beyond her flawlessly timed assist on Heath’s goal, and a nice shot of her own early in the second half, she makes everyone around her look better. Nadia Nadim, often sloppy and inconsistent earlier in the season, seems to find her legs with Sinc around. Heath, too, is at her best with Sinc in the center of the field, and she knows it: "Sinc has that vision not a lot of players have,” she said after the game.

Parsons summed her influence up: “Christine Sinclair calms everyone down… She pushes us toward the team that we know we will be.”

That almost metaphysical calming influence was a major piece of what the Thorns have been missing. Heath’s been acting as captain for most of the season, but as she said herself after the season opener, Sinc is the captain. Where Heath has sometimes been edgy and argumentative, Sinc leads with a quiet, powerful restraint whose impact you can see in the game. “I don’t have to say much,” she said, asked about her leadership style. “I try to lead by example.”

3. They’re just getting started.

Despite putting in an utterly dominant performance, Parsons and the players all agreed there’s more to come. Parsons is a coach who’s seemingly found a secret ingredient in terms of translating talent—which Portland has had for the last three years—into belief. “Talent only gets you so far,” said Sinclair. “We’re a unit. We’re willing to fight for each other.”

Heath agreed, praising the team for grinding out a five-game undefeated streak under exhausting circumstances. There was real conviction in her voice when she said, “I want to give my everything to this club.”

 Parsons, for his part, kept referring to “the horrible stuff”—picking up loose balls after practice, keeping lines of communication open even when it’s uncomfortable. “At some point, players and coaches always have a choice to put the team first or be selfish,” Parsons said. “We’re exceptional at that. We share the load.”

Portland’s job gets harder from here. The team will lose a big chunk of its roster to national team obligations in the coming weeks, and while those call-ups will impact the whole league, they’re likely to hit the Thorns, with their six USWNT starters, especially hard. But the bench is there—Meg Morris, in particular, has been playing her guts out, and several of the team’s non-contracted members looked strong in preseason. Perhaps more than that, we can hope that the culture Parsons is creating will carry the team through those absences.

“We’re just getting going,” said Parsons. That has to sound scary to the rest of the league.

The Thorns take on the Seattle Reign at Providence Park at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 29.

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