Held Saturday in front of 3,324 spectators at Starfire Stadium just outside of Seattle, the northern leg of the I-5 rivalry match between the Portland Thorns FC and Seattle Reign kicked off amid a raucous atmosphere and high energy from both teams, but it soon devolved into a dangerously physical battle that ended in heated controversy.
It also ended in a 1-0 Thorns win, courtesy of an 84th-minute penalty kick converted by Portland forward Christine Sinclair. The victory --and the made penalty kick-- marred Reign goalkeeper Hope Solo's surprise debut. Solo had been cleared for action after missing the first several weeks of the season due to injury, but up until gametime had not been expected to start the match.
The penalty kick resulted from a questionable call by referee Margaret Domka, who seemed to see a foul by Reign midfielder Keelin Winters as she went to cut off Portland midfielder Allie Long. There wasn't much contact between the two, and the whistle came rather late. Immediately after Domka pointed to the penalty spot, boos and groans of disbelief went up from the crowd, and several Reign players tried to argue the case that no foul had occurred. Nonetheless, the Portland captain stepped up to take the kick.
"It was actually one of the few PKs where I've been really nervous," Sinclair said after the match. "You know, it's late in the game, it was a very intense game, and you have a chance to win the game on your foot, and you've got one of the best goalkeepers in the world in goal."
Sinclair's assessment is spot-on: The entire game was marked by physical play, grouching players, re-rolled ankles, head knocks, and weird, inconsistent officiating, and the intensity of all of that merely grew as both teams pushed hard for a go-ahead goal. One got the feeling a single goal would win it, so by the time Sinclair approached the penalty spot, the showdown between her and Solo felt epic.
In retrospect, the Thorns star needn't have felt any butterflies: As is her wont, she coolly approached the ball and slotted it in the lower left corner of the net. It appeared Solo knew she had guessed wrong; the keeper barely even moved.
"As I stepped out and was about to take it I saw her cheat and leave a bit early," Sinclair said. "So I was calm when I struck it and just put it in the other side of the net."
After the match, Solo's face betrayed her anger, as did the brevity of her interaction with reporters. "They didn't earn it," Solo said of the Thorns' win. "Dubious call. That's really all I've got to say about it. But we played great."
Reign coach Laura Harvey was even more to the point. "The referees were a joke," she said, in her clipped British accent. "Next question."
Many observers speculated that Domka's call actually was a makeup for swallowing her whistle on a very clear handball violation that occurred at the 66th minute. During that play, Morgan, looking very dangerous within the penalty box, popped the ball forward and it hit Seattle midfielder Kristen Meier's hand. A scrambling Reign defense managed to get the ball over the endline, and Domka awarded the Thorns a corner.
"Unfortunately I am not allowed to comment on the quality of the refereeing," Parlow Cone said after the game. Her demeanor on the sideline throughout the match, however, said enough. Usually silent and still while standing in front of her bench, during this match Parlow Cone was much more vocal, and clearly frustrated, at one point crying out "Are you kidding me?" with such fervor it was heard all the way across the field and in the press box.
The match at certain points grew so contentious it looked more like an old WWF undercard, with bodies flying and hitting the turf hard. "We knew going into the game it was going to be physical," said Morgan, who earned a yellow card after getting tangled up with Reign midfielder Kaylyn Kyle in the 38th minute --one of three yellows Portland would receive in the match. "I hit the ground quite a few times in the first half and the second half."
Parlow Cone also noted the rough match. "I think there was a lot of confusion on the field about what was a foul, what wasn't a foul, what's a card, what's not a card," she said. "And that adds to physical play."
That style worked in Seattle's favor. From the first whistle, it was clear the Reign wanted this one bad. The team charged out aggressively, pushing the Thorns back on their heels for much of the first half and outshooting Portland 9-4.
But Portland, as has been its pattern this year, absorbed the flurry, adjusted during the half, and then came out and asserted more of its will in the second half.
"In the first half we just couldn't really get our rhythm, they were stepping hard on us defensively," Morgan said. "They had good width, they were doing well possessing the ball, and I think we couldn't figure it out for a while. Finally we did probably around the 30th minute or so."
Once the Thorns had weathered the storm, the team began to counter with runs up the flanks from defenders Marian Dougherty and Nikki Marshall. For the first time in a few games, the offense managed to string together some stretches of wide play, allowing for more thoughtful crosses and organized offensive efforts.
Portland's backline, meantime, stood a solid guard in front of Karina LeBlanc's goal, and was rewarded with its second clean sheet in a row --and its fourth overall. Several times, Seattle found a passing crease or cross after pulling the Thorns wide out on the flanks, or catching the midfield slightly out or position --especially in the first half, when the Reign earned eight corner kicks. But the defense, while tested at times, held tight, and the Reign struggled to find their form. Seattle, in fact, didn't earn a single corner kick in the second half. Much of the defensive prowess came courtesy of Marshall and Rachel Buehler, both of whom played tight, gritty games.
LeBlanc had five saves, including a real bacon-saver at the 62nd minute. A free kick delivery found Seattle midfielder Liz Bogus, who nailed a header goalward on a tough angle, but LeBlanc deftly smacked it away, preventing Seattle from taking a 1-0 lead.
"Our backline was just a rock tonight.You can't give enough credit to them," Sinclair said.
The win kept Portland (6-1-1, 19 points) in second place in the NWSL and left Seattle (0-7-1, 1 point) in last place.
Regardless of the standings, however, the game marked a bit of a moment in this particular derby. Rivalries cannot be invented, regardless of geography, and leading up to this inaugural NWSL season, the Thorns/Reign rivalry seemed a little contrived. But nothing ratchets up the fever like a slugfest, especially one decided by a controversial call. Before the game, the rivalry was a phantom; afterwards, as Solo steamed off; as Harvey cast her 1,000-yard stare; and as Reign midfielder Jessica Fishlock stomped by, muttering words under her breath that should stay off the record, it was clear this version of the Cascadia derby has turned the corner into something real.
"It was intense," Sinclair said. "Neither team was going to give an inch."
Portland Thorns FC (6-1-1, 19pts) vs. Seattle Reign FC (0-7-1, 1pts)
May 25, 2013 - Starfire Sports Complex (Tukwila, Wash.)
Goals by Half 1 2 F
POR 0 1 1
SEA 0 0 0
POR: Sinclair (penalty kick), 84
POR: Edwards (Caution), 30
POR: Morgan (Caution), 38
POR: Dougherty (Caution), 51
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 (F Danielle Foxhoven, 67), M Angie Kerr (M Courtney Wetzel, 76), F Christine Sinclair (capt.), F Alex Morgan
Substitutes Not Used: GK Adelaide Gay, D Jazmyne Avant, M Elizabeth Guess, F Jessica Shufelt
TOTAL SHOTS: 13 (Sinclair, 6); SHOTS ON GOAL: 3 (Sinclair, Morgan, Foxhoven, 1); FOULS: 12 (Edwards, 4); OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 4; SAVES: 5
SEA: GK Hope Solo, D Lauren Barnes, D Kristen Meier, D Kaylyn Kyle, D Kiersten Dallstream, M Jessica Fishlock, M Keelin Winters, M Christine Nairn, F Liz Bogus (F Kristina Larsen, 86), F Tiffany Cameron, F Teresa Noyol
Substitutes Not Used: GK Michelle Betos, GK Haley Kopmeyer, D Emily Zurrer, M Elli Reed, M Lyndsey Patterson, F Lindsay Taylor
TOTAL SHOTS: 17 (Noyola, 4); SHOTS ON GOAL: 5 (Two players tied, 2); FOULS: 9 (Two players tied, 2); OFFSIDES: 2; CORNER KICKS: 8; SAVES: 2
Referee: Margaret Domka
Assistant Referees: Veronica Perez, Ian Johnson
Fourth Official: Ray Moffatte, Jr.
Weather: 61 degrees, partly cloudy