At 10 pm est, the Washington Spirit took on the Portland Thorns at Providence Park in a clash between two teams moving in different directions. While dealing with a number of injuries and absences, the Thorns had done serious work solidifying their claim to a playoff spot with a win against then league-leaders North Carolina Courage last week, while the Spirit struggled again in a loss to the Houston Dash, a team that seems to be turning themselves around after well-documented struggles of their own. The Spirit have been bolstered slightly by the solid play of their marquee signing Mallory Pugh, but they also have been missing the impressive play of Francisca Ordega, who seemed unstoppable at times during the first half of the NWSL season (and who led the Spirit to an upset of the Thorns earlier this year).
On their end, Portland’s list of absences grew ever longer, with midfielder Amandine Henry, striker Nadia Nadim, and midfielder Dagny Brinjarsdottir out representing their international squads at this summer’s European Championship in the Netherlands. This led to a lineup that had usual striker Christine Sinclair sitting further back in the midfield, leaving the main bulk of the attacking responsibilities to Hayley Raso and Ashleigh Sykes. While these lineup shakeups presumably would cause some discomfort to the home team, Portland was certainly walking in with enough firepower to comfortably handle the struggling Spirit.
Not getting it done
However, the first half of this match found the Thorns struggling to put together a cohesive strategy to unlock the Washington defense. Nadim’s usual energy on the pitch was noticeably absent, and Portland couldn’t find a spark to truly look dangerous in front of goal. Sinclair was largely ineffective in her playmaker role, and while midfielder Lindsey Horan worked hard to find seams for her teammates, the amount of vocal protest at the referee in Portland’s final third gave the impression that the Thorns were particularly easily frustrated when they couldn’t find a way around Washington’s back-line. This led to the first half ending scoreless.
Finding a spark
The first 15 minutes of the second half seemed to go similarly, until Washington grabbed a chance against the run of play in the 58th minute. Pugh showed her speed on the right wing, going end-line and sending a great ball into the box, which ultimately found the feet of Havana Solaun, who was able to direct the ball into the back of the net. While Washington wholly deserved to be leading at this point in the match, this goal seemed to finally provide the spark that Portland was waiting for. The Thorns converted a free kick from 35 yards out in the 62nd minute into a scoring opportunity for Allie Long, who calmly equalized for her squad. This momentum shift continued to work in the Thorns’ favor, and substitute Mallory Weber took the opportunity to score her first NWSL goal in the 80th minute, tapping in a pinpointed pass from Sykes to give Portland the full 3 points.
Washington would have to find some positives in this performance, hanging tough for 60 minutes against a strong Portland squad, and taking their opportunities when they can (and praying they’ll get Pugh and Ordega together to close out the season). And while Portland walked away with the win, and are sitting comfortably in a playoff positions in the NWSL standings, they’d have to be somewhat concerned with their inability to convert in the run of play – they were outshot by Washington 15 to 12 (7 to 3 in shots on goal), and almost half of their total goals for the season come from free or penalty kick scenarios. One has to wonder if they’re starting to rely on those opportunities to kick into gear, and while they’ll be getting a stronger roster as their internationals return, the Portland Thorns continue to search for a real identity in a very competitive NWSL season.