Professional athletes dedicating games to teammates who have fallen to injury can be a hackneyed affair. The "Win one for the Gipper" trope clashes awkwardly with Sportscenter glitz; the cliché rings hollow in an age where players are no longer called "athletes," but "sports figures," their public personas sculpted by front offices, publicists, and agents.
But then someone on your own team goes down, and all that changes.
This past Thursday, Thorns midfielder and team leader Becky Edwards suffered a knee injury during training. On Friday, an MRI confirmed Edwards had torn her ACL; she'd be out for the season.
It was a devastating blow for the Thorns, who consider Edwards not just the engine of the midfield, but one of the most beloved and respected leaders on the team. Portland had exactly one day to reset, both emotionally and tactically, before Sunday's crucial home match against the Seattle Reign.
And, boy, did they pull it together. The Thorns --also without Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and Rachel Buehler, due to international duty-- gutted out a dramatic 2-0 win in front of 13,802 fans at Jeld-Wen, a victory that meant something special to a team clearly gut-punched by the loss of their leader.
"Obviously, this game was for Becky Edwards," Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone said post-match. "She's the heart and soul of this team whether she's on the field or not...She's the first to pick up a teammate, first to congratulate them or build them back up when they're down. To lose her was a huge shock for us."
The win came courtesy of a pair of second half goals, one from supersub Danielle Foxhoven, and one from an unlikely source --rookie Mana Shim, who also assisted Foxhoven's goal. The win kept the Thorns tied at the top of the NWSL table, and provided redemption for the same roster that --also sans three international players-- put up a lackluster performance in a loss to Chicago on June 1. The entire match highlighted a breakout performance from Shim, a relatively unknown player who matured in front our eyes.
Those are all juicy storylines, to be sure; it took something as jolting as the loss of Edwards to usurp them.
The loss of Edwards wasn't just an emotional blow for this team: Edwards had been playing well enough of late to catch the eye of U.S. Women's National Team head coach Tom Sermanni --by many reports, her call-up was imminent. That same high quality play has been an essential element of the Thorns' success all year, one that was impossible to replace with 24-hours' notice. "We literally had one day of training to sort that out," Parlow Cone said. "...so I think it took us a while [in the first half] to get organized and understand where everyone needed to be."
The Thorns did what one might expect under such circumstances: they hunkered down, playing what at times looked resembled some kind of 4-5-1 formation, with Elizabeth Guess--a midfielder who has barely played this season-- taking on the forward role. Edwards watched from the sidelines, a brace laddering her left leg from ankle to hip, as her team weathered an early Seattle onslaught. Heavy touches and flaccid passes revealed the Thorn's disorientation, but by halftime the team escaped unscathed courtesy of just enough defense, a bit of luck, and some questionable decisions by the Reign.
"At halftime, knowing we were OK, knowing that we were doing well, I just felt like we needed to push further up the field," Parlow Cone said. "We were sitting in too much."
Shim agreed. "Going into the second half we put a little more pressure on them and we got some good chances by winning the ball further up the field. I think that was the big difference."
Another big difference: Foxhoven. Coming out of the half, Parlow Cone exchanged Foxhoven for Guess, and the results were immediate. Taking advantage of a crafty pass from Shim, Foxhoven found an unlikely left-to-right angle in the box and popped a top-shelf beaut that bent just inside the far post, past Seattle keeper Michelle Betos, and into the goal. Fewer than three minutes had passed in the half.
"In warmup, I was feeling a little bend to the far post. I don't really know why, it just felt on," Foxhoven said after the game. "So when I got in that position, I knew that was what I wanted to hit, and it hit the side netting and it was perfect, exactly what I wanted."
After she scored, Foxhoven raced toward the sideline and pointed, repeatedly, to Edwards. "Today was for her," Foxhoven said. "She's such a huge part of this team, and she still will be, but today definitely was for her, and that brought on an extra piece of motivation for us."
That motivation manifested in a goal again at 66', when Angie Kerr slipped a clever pass through a trio of defenders to the foot of Shim, who was streaking on a well-thought run straight to the goal.
"Angie took a really good touch by her defender and the center of the field was just wide open," Shim said. "I was like, ‘Uh oh, better get on my horse' and I went through and then I was wide open."
Wide open is one thing. An untested rookie putting a 1v1 shot home against a tough goalkeeper is another. Shim kept her composure, firmly placing the ball past Betos for her first professional goal ever --and then immediately leapt into Foxhoven's arms to celebrate. "It's incredible," Shim said. "All my teammates have been supportive, saying, ‘It's coming, it's coming, don't rush it,' and it was a really great day for it to happen."
It was a great day for something else to happen, too: Goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc came up with a dramatic penalty kick save that kept the score 2-nil at 83', stymieing any thought of a late Seattle rally. After Thorns defender Nikki Marshall was called for a handball in the box, Seattle midfielder Christine Nairn ripped her PK attempt to LeBlanc's right, but the veteran keeper guessed correctly, blocking the shot with a kick off of her shins.
When asked after the game what it took to make the save, LeBlanc noted, "Some of it is a guess, some of it is reading it. I tried to do both, and I guess I got lucky."
LeBlanc, whose ego must still have been stinging after not being called up for CanWNT's international friendly, earned a Girls, Inc. rose for her clean sheet on the day. She gave that rose to Edwards post-match as the Rose City Riveters supporters group chanted "Beck-y Ed-wards!" But before the match, LeBlanc, who had been tapped as team captain for the day, had given Edwards something else. "I had Becky put [the armband] on, and I said, ‘This is for you, buddy,' and the whole team felt the same way. At some point in all our careers we've been through something tough, and we know how hard it is to put on a smile, and she walked into the locker room today smiling. She's a leader."
Post-match, as the Riveters' chants continued, and both Foxhoven and Shim handed their roses to Edwards as well, there remained much to parse: The defense played quite well, the midfield upped its game, and Kerr, Kat Williamson, Jazmyne Avant, Allie Long, and Courtney Wetzel put in some of their best performances of the year. But the emotion of the day trumped the usual narratives.
If you don't believe me, consider this: Often after games, when the stands have emptied and the Riveters' chants have faded, and the only sounds are the whisking of brooms on concrete and the clack of laptop keystrokes in the press box, players will leave by making their way across from the west side of the field to the exits by the Key Bank side. On Sunday, I happened to glance up just in time to see a lone figure. It was Edwards, alone, limping in her leg brace, across 74 yards of turf, at a glacial pace. Her back was turned, so I couldn't see the look on her face, but she was so far away, I never would have been able to see it anyway. But there was one thing I could see, as she made her way through the stands, step by excruciating step: a flash of red in her hand.
She was still holding her roses.
Portland Thorns FC (8-2-1, 25pts) vs. Seattle Reign FC (0-9-1, 1pt)
June 16, 2013 - JELD-WEN Field (Portland, Ore.)
Goals by Half 1 2 F
SEA 0 0 0
POR 0 2 2
POR: Foxhoven (Shim), 48
POR: Shim (Kerr), 66
POR: Guess (Caution), 39
POR: Washington (Caution), 43
Lineups & Stats
POR: GK Karina LeBlanc (capt.); D Marian Dougherty, D Kathryn Williamson, D Nikki Marshall, D Jazmyne Avant, M Nikki Washington (Emilee O'Neil, 60), M Courtney Wetzel, M Allie Long, M Elizabeth Guess (Danielle Foxhoven, 46), M Angie Kerr (Jessica Shufelt, 86), F Mana Shim
Substitutes Not Used: GK Adelaide Gay, GK Cris Lewis^, D Carlie Davis^, M Amanda Dutra^
TOTAL SHOTS: 14 (Foxhoven, 4); SHOTS ON GOAL: 8 (Foxhoven, 3); FOULS: 13 (Washington, 4); OFFSIDES: 5; CORNER KICKS: 3; SAVES: 4
SEA: GK Michelle Betos; D Lauren Barnes, D Kate Deines (Jenny Ruiz, 73), D Elli Reed, D Kiersten Dallstream, M Teresa Noyola, M Christine Nairn, M Kristen Meier, M Keelin Winters (capt.), F Lindsay Taylor (Tiffany Cameron, 77), F Kristina Larsen (Liz Bogus, 56)
Substitutes Not Used: GK Haley Kopmeyer, D Bree Rowe^, M Joana Houplin^, M Lyndsey Patterson
TOTAL SHOTS: 15 (Three players tied, 3); SHOTS ON GOAL: 4 (Winters, Nairn, 2); FOULS: 7 (Seven players tied, 1); OFFSIDES: 2; CORNER KICKS: 4; SAVES: 6
Referee: Robert Sibiga
Assistant Referees: Cory Richardson, Jason Perlewitz
Fourth Official: Andrew Brooks
Weather: 64 degrees, partly cloudy