The Portland Thorns came into Jeld-Wen on Thursday flying on the wings of their four game win streak, five-game unbeaten streak, and a three-game road trip worth of wins. They came in atop the NWSL standings, knowing that the friendly confines of Jeld-Wen Field --with its filled seats and raucous supporters group-- was waiting to enfold them in its arms as they took on second-place Sky Blue FC of New Jersey. The table was set for a feast.
Turned out to be a famine.
Instead of taking care of business against SBFC (and thus grabbing a stronger hold on first place), the Thorns left Jeld-Wen on the ugly end of a 1-0 loss, after a weirdly tepid game that lacked rhythm on both sides. With that, the Thorns' unbeaten streak ended.The startling result came courtesy of a 80th-minute goal from Sky Blue sub Taylor Lytle.
"It hurt," Thorns keeper Karina LeBlanc said of the loss. "Especially at home, because we want to put on a good show for the fans, and let them know that we appreciate them."
The goal came off a free kick following Sinclair's first yellow card of the year. SBFC's Courtney Goodson caught the Thorns off-guard with a short delivery to Lytle, who had plenty of room to drive a gorgeous shot into the upper right corner of the net. The placement was genius --and Goodson had plenty of time to make it happen.
"It was an amaizng goal on their part that finish was unbelievable," Thorns defender Rachel Buehler said. "There's not much you can do about it. But next time we can be a little more aware of that person drawing off the top of our marking group and put somebody up there, or put some pressure on her, so that she doesn't have such a free shot."
The goal was the culmination of a game that had clearly turned south for the Thorns, but it didn't start that way. The 11,055 people who showed up to watch the match were treated to a promising first 10 minutes. Within two minutes of the opening whistle, in fact, Thorns forward Christine Sinclair almost gave Portland early control. The Canadian international took advantage of a SBFC turnover and fired a quality shot, tagging a ball that just missed the far post. The attempt was just inches from being the kind of goal that can affect the momentum of an entire game.
But it was not to be. While the Thorns continued to hold the run of play for the next eight minutes --earning a pair of corner kicks before the 10 minute mark SBFC methodically applied its gameplan of packing its backline into a tight block, and the game regressed into a weird slog.
Looking weirdly out of sync, Portland players didn't necessarily give up a lot of possession, but they were stymied by SBFC's block. Time and again, the Thorns managed to string together a number of passes, but the movement was lateral, often capped with a desperate ball to Morgan.
"I don't think the energy was low but I thought our change of pace was not good enough," Parlow Cone said after the match. "We'd start at one pace and continued the build up and the same pace."
On the receiving end of those dump-and-run passes, Morgan often found herself swathed in multiple defenders, or battling fellow USWNTer Christie Rampone, who never gave Morgan half an inch of space. The Thorns forward was forced to either chase down errant balls or try to create scoring chances in the face of stacks of defenders. It was too much to ask of anyone, even those with superstar skills. It was, frankly, a waste of those skills, and severely hindered Morgan's ability to send off quality shots.
"I was very happy with the number of chances we created," Parlow Cone said, "but it's very difficult to score unless you get your shots on frame. We need to work a little more on that, to at least get them on frame to give them a chance to go in."
Those searching for reasons for the Thorns stilted offense need look no further than SBFC head coach Jim Gabarra. The seasoned coach's strategy made mincemeat of Portland head coach Cindy Parlow Cone's tactics, not to mention the Thorns players ability to conjure anything meaningful out of their own side's gameplan. Gabarra's team pinched the Thorns inward, stifling the flanks, and forced an already narrow-shaped team even further into the center of the pitch.
"They played a very good tactical game," Buehler said. "They played a very smart defensive game and you have to meticulously get through that, and at times that takes away your urgency a little because it's frustrating and it's hard to break through their block."
Portland did shake free some chances in the final 10 minutes of the game, collecting some set pieces and shots, but it was more the result of a desperate flinging of bodies than coherent adjustment. Substitute Danielle Foxhoven brought her usual boost of energy to the team, but it was too little, too late.
Although clearly miffed at the loss, the Thorns seemed to take a philosophical look at it, reflecting Parlow Cone's even-keeled approach.
"To lose at home, it stings that much more," LeBlanc said. "But it's good that happened early in the season. There's a lot of things we're going to learn from this, and take it forward."
Indeed, the team has little time to dwell, as the Thorns host the Washington Spirit Sunday at 2 p.m. at Jeld-Wen Field.
Portland Thorns FC (4-1-1, 13pts) vs. Sky Blue FC (4-1-1, 13pts)
May 16, 2013 - JELD-WEN Field (Portland, Ore.)
SKY - Lytle (Goodson) 80
POR - Sinclair (caution) 79
Lineups & Stats
POR: GK Karina LeBlanc; D Marian Dougherty, D Rachel Buehler, D Kathryn Williamson, D Nikki Marshall, M Becky Edwards, M Allie Long, M Meleana Shim (Danielle Foxhoven, 63), M Nikki Washington (Angie Kerr, 85), F Christine Sinclair (capt.), F Alex Morgan
TOTAL SHOTS: 11 (Morgan, 5); SHOTS ON GOAL: 5 (Morgan/Sinclair, 2); FOULS: 5 (Morgan, 2); OFFSIDES: 8;
CORNER KICKS: 7; SAVES: 5
SKY: GK Brittany Cameron, D Christie Rampone (capt.), D Caitlin Foord, D Courtney Goodson, D Kendall Johnson (Taylor Lytle, 78), M Manya Makoski, M Sophie Schmidt, M Katy Freels, F Danesha Adams (Maddie Thompson, 90), F Kelley O'Hara, F Lisa De Vanna
Substitutes Not Used: GK Jill Loyden, M Brittany Bock, D Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall, F Monica Ocampo
TOTAL SHOTS: 13 (De Vanna, 4); SHOTS ON GOAL: 6 (De Vanna/Freels, 2); FOULS: 11 (Three players tied, 2);
OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 3; SAVES: 5
Referee: Josh Wilkens
Assistant Referees: Veronica Perez, Farhad Dadkho
Fourth Official: Ronald Lagraff