The victory, which came just three days after the Thorns suffered their first home loss, allowed Portland to maintain second place in the NWSL standings. Although both Portland and New Jersey's Sky Blue FC hold 5-1-1 records and 16 points apiece, SBFC holds the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Thorns.
Beset by illness (reports are a bug has latched ahold of at least two key players on the team), fatigued from the quick scheduling turnaround, and with little time to train in between games, Portland struggled on offense. At times the attack looked feckless and disjointed, with forwards Meleana Shim and Morgan -along with attacking midfielder Sinclair--misreading each others' timing, runs, and intentions. There were several passes to nowhere, several runs not made, and several runs that went unrewarded. There was visible frustration.
Ah, but, then this: Sinclair decided to take matters into her own hands --or feet-- in the 41st minute, when she pulled in a crafty feed from midfielder Allie Long, settled the ball, and cranked a serpentine shot that curled oh-so-cruelly past Spirit keeper Chantel Jones and into the front corner of the net. Knee-high, the ball just skimmed the post. It was vintage Sinclair. And it put the Thorns up, 1-0, going into the half.
"I felt like the defender knew I was right-footed, so I felt like she gave me a little more room on the inside. So I got [the ball] to my left and all I was thinking was ‘far post, far post,' and it just bent in," Sinclair said at the post-match press conference. Just after this statement, Sinclair raised her eyebrows, gave a relaxed smile, and semi-whispered, "Woo hoo."
Woo hoo, indeed. The goal took a little pressure off the Thorns, who came into Sunday's match under the weight of their lackluster play on Thursday.
"We were lucky to have a game to come back with," Morgan said post-victory. "After the loss we were really down. We wanted this game right away. We wanted to have one a couple days later just to get our confidence back up, and I think that we did that today. We came out wanting to work hard for each other."
Morgan did her part in the 84th minute, courtesy of some fine play by sub Courtney Wetzel. After picking off a Spirit pass, the be-dreadlocked Wetzel coolly delivered a through ball right to Morgan's foot, in stride, as the forward streaked goalward. Morgan then outpaced two defenders caught off-guard and slipped a shot past Jones at point-blank range.
"Courtney Wetzel found me perfectly in behind [the defenders]," Morgan said. "And I already had one breakaway that I missed, so I wasn't going to let another one slip through my hands."
Although Portland head coach Cindy Parlow Cone has preached possession-style play since training camp, Sunday's game marked the second in a row where the game dictated otherwise. On Thursday, the Thorns found themselves settling into a bit of kick-and-run desperation after Sky Blue FC squeezed the team's shape like a boa constrictor. On Sunday, the Spirit took a different tack, flying at the Thorns with aggressive overlapping runs from outside backs Domenica Hodak and Ali Krieger. The Thorns players took advantage with repeated counterattacks.
"No, that was not in the plan," Parlow Cone said. "And that's just part of the game at times...I think both sides gave up some counter attacks, and that's just the nature of playing Thursday-Sunday."
Morgan noted her goal was a direct result of an on-field adjustment to the Spirit's aggressiveness. "We actually had a lot of counterattacks. When they would lose it, Krieger was out there, their outside back was up, so sometimes we found ourselves 2-v-2," she said. "I was happy with Krieger going forward -I felt like they were a three-back at times, and that made my job a lot easier. I think we had a lot of counters, and were successful because of that."
While the Spirit tactics ultimately lead to Thorns goals, Krieger almost made the strategy work for Washington too, repeatedly flying past the Portland midfield and threatening in Washington's offensive third. Krieger made a number of dangerous crosses, and almost tallied a goal herself after breaking freely down the right side. It took the best save of Thorns keeper Karina LeBlanc's day to keep Krieger's blast out of the net.
As the clean sheet shows, however, the Thorns defense absorbed the pressure without faltering, even during the Spirit's desperate effort toward the end of the game.
"I think our communication is getting better and better with each game," defender Marian Dougherty said. "I think we're molding together. I think we're right there."
At times, the puzzling offense made the game frustrating to watch, but upon reflection it's easier to see what the match truly was: A gutty win ground out by a fatigued team that is still looking for its tactical identity.
"I think last game we were lacking something, just that bite...and Cindy really challenged us to find that," Dougherty said, of the Thorn's pre-game preparations. "She challenged us to dig deep."
Portland Thorns FC (5-1-1, 16pts) vs. Washington Spirit (1-3-3, 6pts)
May 19, 2013 - JELD-WEN Field (Portland, Ore.)
Goals by Half 1 2 F
WAS 0 0 0
POR 1 1 2
POR: Sinclair (Long), 41
POR: Morgan (Wetzel), 86
POR: Marshall (Caution), 65
WAS: Gayle (Caution), 82
Lineups & Stats
POR: GK Karina LeBlanc; D Marian Dougherty, D Rachel Buehler, D Kathryn Williamson, D Nikki Marshall, M Becky Edwards, M Allie Long (Jessica Shufelt, 90), M Meleana Shim (Angie Kerr, 79), M Nikki Washington (Courtney Wetzel, 71), F Christine Sinclair (capt.), F Alex Morgan
TOTAL SHOTS: 14 (Morgan, 6); SHOTS ON GOAL: 8 (Morgan, 3); FOULS: 7 (Marshall, Long, 2); OFFSIDES: 3; CORNER KICKS: 3; SAVES: 3
WAS: GK Chantel Jones, D Domenica Hodak, D Tori Huster, D Robyn Gayle, D Ali Krieger, M Julia Roberts, M Lori Lindsey (capt.), M Diana Matheson, M Ingrid Wells (Jasmyne Spencer, 71), F Tiffany McCarty (Caroline Miller, 65), F Stephanie Ochs
Substitutes Not Used: GK Ashlyn Harris, D Candace Chapman, D Kika Toulouse, M Holly King, F Colleen Williams
TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (Three players tied, 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 3 (Three players tied, 1); FOULS: 9 (Gayle, 2); OFFSIDES: 0; CORNER KICKS: 2; SAVES: 6
Referee: Robert Sibiga
Assistant Referees: Cory Richardson, Andrew Deuker
Fourth Official: Andrew Brooks
Weather: 57 degrees, partly cloudy