Jeld-Wen field is one of only two stadiums in the United States with a FIFA two-star rated surface. The field is a proper soccer pitch, with proper soccer lines and proper soccer goals. It seats 20,674 people. The 16,479 who showed up a few Sundays ago to cheer on the Portland Thorns filled the stadium with proper soccer chants and cheers, and the players responded with a soild 2-1 win over the Seattle Reign, along with heartfelt thanks and perhaps even a few tears. It was, as Thorns play-by-play announcer Ann Schatz put it, "a love fest."
But that was a week and half ago. This past Saturday it was back to reality when the Thorns traveled to Chicago to take on the Red Stars on a skippy field straddled with almost every line imaginable--lacrosse, American football, and, it appeared, even some kind of shotput/discus thing.
The transition couldn't have been easy for the Thorns, but the team showed up, topping the Red Stars 2-0 behind goals from Danielle Foxhoven and Christine Sinclair, and keeper Karina LeBlanc's first clean sheet of the year.
It was a win whose result sounds more convincing than the performance actually was. While the Thorns commanded the run of play, much of their first-half possession was restricted to the midfield, often bogging down after a poor Portland pass or heavy touch.
The Thorns were content to methodically push their way upfield throughout the match, slowly gaining territory until Danielle Foxhoven subbed in for Angie Kerr to provide some offensive pep. It may be too early in the season to dub Foxhoven a super sub...but, boy, does she look like a supersub.
"What [Dani] has been has been fantastic," head coach Cindy Parlow Cone told me after I finally caught up with her on Wednesday afternoon. "I was just telling her, ‘When we need a goal, I want to put you in. Every single game she's come into, whether we need a goal or we need to hold on to a lead, she's come into it and made a difference.'"
She certainly did so in the 70th minute of this game. As the Thorns' slowly pushed play into the Red Stars defensive third, the deliberate advance finally paid off when Morgan zoomed up to steal the ball about 30 yards from the goal. As Morgan galloped toward the net, keeper Erin McLeod had no choice but to race out and attempt to block her quick shot. McLeod succeeded, but Foxhoven was there to gobble up the rebound and place it in the open net. The former Pilot then ran to Morgan and jumped straight into her teammate's arms in celebration.
"I think Alex surprised them. Everyone knows she's fast, but at times I think they underestimate how quick she is," Parlow Cone said "She was like a gazelle and just jumped onto that ball...and once again, Dani impacted the game hugely as a sub."
The pace of play then picked up, as Chicago scrambled to equalize. The Thorns took advantage of the Red Stars' sloppy urgency, picking off passes and forcing turnovers. It was such a turnover around the 81st minute that lead to defender Becky Edwards' excellent clearing pass from within Thorns territory to Morgan, who one-touched it to Foxhoven. The forward had 45 yards and three defenders to dribble through, and as the Chicago defense converged on her, Foxhoven dropped a pass back to Morgan. Morgan had plenty of room to feed the ball to Sinclair, who was streaking past her, seemingly forgotten by the scrambling defense.
Hey, Chicago, here's a pro tip: Don't forget about Christine Sinclair.
If you do, this will happen: Sinclair settled the ball, made a little juke move, shifted the ball to her favored right foot, and launched a perfect shot into the right corner of the net. past a diving McLeod. It was a gorgeous shot, half placed and half-paced, Sinclair looking as cool and collected as someone mixing a martini.
It was an electrifying goal, and Foxhoven's wasn't too shabby to watch either. Overall, however, the Thorns didn't equal the consistency we saw in the match against Seattle.
"The pieces are coming together, but I don't feel like we've completely jelled as a team," Parlow Cone said. "I see moments of it, where we're connecting passes and the timing is great and we're reading each other well, but for me it's still breaking down too often. And most of the breakdowns are coming from us, not because what the other team is doing."
That's true, but the Thorns certainly didn't equal the inconsistency we saw in the team's wobbly first match against FC Kansas City, either.
"We do have too many unforced turnovers, and part of that is just learning each other and what each other likes to do," Parlow Cone said. "So that's been a lot of the focus these past couple of weeks. I thought it was a little bit better in Chicago, but not where we want to be."
The defensive gaps and miscues that have reared their heads here and there in the first several matches also showed improvement, although, again, the Thorns allowed some dangerous moments. The most dangerous threat to LeBlanc's clean sheet came at 86', when defender Rachel Quon connected with midfielder Julianne Sitch for a header that almost flew by LeBlanc, who snatched it out of the air.
"Defensively we're getting much better, which we saw in Chicago," Parlow Cone said. "Karina had to make one very good save but other than that I felt like our defense was very solid."
This season is still so young, and the various pitches (and some of the players) still so unfamiliar, it's difficult to draw conclusions here, but the trajectory appears pointed upward -after all, three points on the road (courtesy of a shutout, no less) is nothing to sneeze at. The Thorns still need to get through the Washington Spirit at the Maryland Soccerplex on Saturday, May 4, then back to Chicago on May 12. After that, get your butts home, ladies: Jeld-Wen is waiting.
- Thorns FC have earned a league-high five goals through three games this season.
- Morgan, who tallied an assist on Saturday, has earned at least a point in back-to-back games.
- Portland has received four of its five total goals from four different players (Sinclair 2, Foxhoven, Morgan and Marian Dougherty).
- Midfielder Elizabeth Guess, acquired on April 24, made her Thorns FC debut as a 90th-minute substitute for Morgan.
Portland Thorns FC (2-0-1, 7pts) vs. Chicago Red Stars (0-1-1, 1pts)
April 27, 2013 - Benedictine Sports Complex (Lisle, Ill.)
Goals by Half 1 2 F
POR 0 2 2
CHI 0 0 0
POR - Foxhoven 70
POR - Sinclair (Morgan) 81
CHI - Mautz (caution) 69
Lineups & Stats
POR: GK Karina LeBlanc; D Marian Dougherty, D Rachel Buehler, D Kathryn Williamson, D Nikki Marshall, M Becky Edwards, M Allie Long (Courtney Wetzel, 89), M Angie Kerr (Danielle Foxhoven, 46), F Nikki Washington, F Christine Sinclair (capt.), F Alex Morgan (Elizabeth Guess, 90)
Substitutes Not Used: GK Adelaide Gay, D Jazmyne Avant
TOTAL SHOTS: 13 (Morgan, 4); SHOTS ON GOAL: 9 (Morgan, 4); FOULS: 9 (Edwards, 3); OFFSIDES: 3; CORNER KICKS: 3; SAVES: 3
CHI: GK Erin McLeod; D Taryn Hemmings, D Carmelina Moscato, D Rachel Quon, D Lydia Vandenbergh, M Zakiya Bywaters (Julianne Sitch, 68), M Shannon Boxx (Maribel Dominguez, 78, M Lori Chalupny, M Leslie Osborne, M Alyssa Mautz (Jessica McDonald, 71), F Ella Masar
Substitutes Not Used: GK Taylor Vancil, D Jacqueline Santacaterina, D Michelle Wenino, M Dinora Garza, F Lauren Fowlkes, F Hanna Gilmore
TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (Chalupny, 5); SHOTS ON GOAL: 3 (Chalupny, 2); FOULS: 10 (Chalupny, 3); OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 0; SAVES: 7
Referee: Katja Koroleva
Assistant Referees: Adrienne McDonald, Jason White
Fourth Official: Donovan Noocha
Weather: 60 degrees, cloudy