"Soccer is a game of mistakes," Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone said to me on Wednesday, just three days before the Thorns defeated the Washington Spirit 2-1 at the Maryland Soccerplex in front of a sell-out crowd of 5,011. "You've got to capitalize on the other team's and try to make sure when you make your mistakes that the other time is not allowed to capitalize on yours."
It may do a disservice to the rapid improvements this team had made to couch Saturday's victory solely in those terms --after all, the Thorns (3-0-1, 10 points) don't sit atop the NWSL standings merely via that one dimension of the game-- but a few particular moments in the match did reinforce Parlow Cone's focus on forcing, and taking advantage of, other teams' errors.
The most dramatic example of this occurred at the 51st minute. With the Thorns leading 1-0, the usually rock-solid Spirit defender Ali Krieger blundered with an errant pass that landed smack in the middle of her defensive third. Thorns midfielder Nikki Washington pounced on the ball, sidestepping defender Robyn Gayle and sending a serpentine shot that curled just by goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris's fingertips into the lower far post.
With that, the Thorns grabbed the lead, 2-0, and the goal proved to be the game winner after the Spirit's Diana Matheson converted a penalty kick -induced by a Jazmyne Avant foul-- in the 87th minute.
Other teams should take note: You just can't make unforced errors against Portland, because the Thorns will make you pay. Gayle and Harris, for instance, almost combined for a ghastly error at the 20th minute. For whatever reason, Harris appeared unfazed as Morgan anticipated Harris's pass to Gayle in the penalty box, turned on the afterburners, and headed to intercept. The keeper's lack of urgency allowed her pass to reach Gayle's feet at the same time as Morgan, forcing a heavy touch on Gayle's part. Morgan stole the ball, brushed Gayle off like an old boyfriend, and rifled a shot that was thwarted only by the near goalpost.
Morgan barely missed the mark on that play, but she already had easily netted a penalty kick in the 12th minute after being brought down in the box by Domenica Hodak. Spirit players -especially Harris-were furious, contending that Morgan was offsides on the initial pass from Washington and was outside of the box when the penalty occurred.
Referee Christina Unkel didn't see it that way and Morgan stepped to the line and kicked the ball left. Harris guess the other way.
The goals, of course, were crucial, but the quiet hero of this match was Rachel Buehler, who played her best game of the season so far. Time and again the stalwart defender dispossessed the Spirit attack as it attempted to muster a threat. Like the Spirit, the Thorns made their fair share of mistakes. Buehler made sure they never proved fatal.
This Thorns side has some pepper to it, and the spice has revealed a lot about the character of this Thorns side. When Harris was tagged with a yellow card for dissent for giving Unkel an earful after Morgan's PK, the stage was set for some ensuing chippiness. At the 43rd minute, Hodak brought Morgan down again, and the two exchanged, shall we say, pleasantries. Matheson fouled Morgan shortly after, and then all of a sudden people were up in other people's grill. Nikki Washington rushed over to come to the aid of her teammate, getting Morgan out of the way and taking up the argument herself before tensions dissipated. Judging from that, the frankly adorable goal celebrations, and the smiles shared by the team in their pre-match huddle, looks like this squad has a lot of camaraderie.
Forward Meleana Shim got the start over struggling midfielder Angie Kerr-Woznuk, and the strategy seemed to work well against the Spirit. It will be interesting to watch the roster rotations unfold as new Thorn Elizabeth Guess gets folded into the mix.
Portland Thorns FC (3-0-1, 10pts) vs. Washington Spirit (0-2-2, 2pts)
May 4, 2013 - Maryland SoccerPlex (Boyds, Md.)
Goals by Half 1 2 F
POR 1 1 2
WAS 0 1 1
POR - Morgan (penalty kick) 12
POR - Washington (unassisted) 51
WAS - Matheson (penalty kick) 86
WAS - Harris (caution) 13
POR - Long (caution) 70
POR - Edwards (caution) 82
Lineups & Stats
POR: GK Karina LeBlanc; D Marian Dougherty, D Rachel Buehler, D Kathryn Williamson, D Nikki Marshall (Jazmyne Avant, 64), M Becky Edwards, M Allie Long (Courtney Wetzel, 83), M Meleana Shim (Danielle Foxhoven, 90+3), M Nikki Washington, F Christine Sinclair (capt.), F Alex Morgan
Substitutes Not Used: GK Adelaide Gay
TOTAL SHOTS: 11 (Sinclair, 4); SHOTS ON GOAL: 5 (Sinclair/Morgan, 2); FOULS: 7 (Edwards/Shim, 2); OFFSIDES: 4; CORNER KICKS: 3; SAVES: 6
WAS: GK Ashlyn Harris; D Domenica Hodak (Jazmyne Spencer, 75), D Robyn Gayle, D Tori Huster, D Ali Krieger, M Lori Lindsey (capt.), M Diana Matheson, M Ingrid Wells (Tiffany McCarty, 46), M Julia Roberts, F Caroline Miller, F Stephanie Ochs
Substitutes Not Used: GK Chantel Jones, D Candace Chapman, D Kika Toulouse, M Colleen Williams, M Lupita Worbis
TOTAL SHOTS: 11 (Three players tied, 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 7 (McCarty, 2); FOULS: 7 (Hodak, 4); OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 4; SAVES: 3
Referee: Christina Unkel
Assistant Referees: Shannon Poplstein, Danielle Chesky
Fourth Official: Hagan Barnett
Weather: 66 degrees, clear and breezy