A few days after their lackluster 2-0 home loss to Chicago the Portland Thorns sat down and held two meetings. One included the coaches, one didn't, but the subject was the same.
"Just talking about what we want to be as a team, who we want to be as individuals, and what we want to represent on the field," according to Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone.
"I think Chicago coming here and beating us the way they did was a good wakeup call for us."
It must have been a hell of an alarm clock, because the Thorns came out blazing Thursday night at Jeld-Wen field, topping FC Kansas City 4-3 in a wild match highlighted by Alex Morgan's one-goal, two-assist performance.
It was a bipolar affair. On the one hand, the 10,4886 who came to bear witness were treated to four goals from four separate Thorns players --Morgan, Courtney Wetzel, Danielle Foxhoven, and Allie Long--courtesy of renewed intensity and improved tactics. But the crowd also sweated through long patches of hideous defense on the Thorns' part; twice the Thorns found themselves up by two goals, and both times FCKC cut that lead to one. The quality of Kansas City's output lurched back and forth just as violently.
Even Morgan's opening 12' goal contained elements of both the mortifying and the sublime. Becky Edwards started the sequence by threading a nicely paced ball up a wide seam on the right side. It looked as if the usually steady defender Becky Sauerbrunn was going to reach the pass first, but as Morgan turned on the afterburners and charged quickly, Sauerbrunn...just...slipped. The Turf Monster didn't so much grab her as throw a banana peel under her boot. So there Morgan was, no other defender in sight, squared to the goal, about 15 feet away from paydirt, settling the ball to shoot.
She nailed it.
Morgan cranked her shot over the outstretched hands of FCKC's 5'10" goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart --who just happens to be a USWNT teammate of Morgan's (along with Sauerbrunn), and who happens to be one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
"There was just a defensive mistake on their part, and I've played with and against Becky and Nicole Barnhart multiple times, so I know the way Becky defends and I know the way Barnie blocks shots," Morgan said after the game. "Luckily, I just got fortunate on that, picking Becky off. With the shot, I went for power rather than accuracy, because I know Nicole is really good at reading that ball to the far post. So I just tried to go with power."
Going with power sums up what Morgan's attitude seemed to be this game. Throughout this season, the star has kind of coasted on her superhuman ability, turning it on in spurts --enough so that she has been at the top of the list of NWSL goal-scorers from the get-go-- but never for a full 90.
But in this match, Morgan set the tone for an entire team that seemed intent on righting a ship that has been listing for several games now. After the match, she also referenced the meetings that had taken place the day before.
"[We talked about] our mentality and why we're here and why we're all playing here, and the passion that we've had for so long for this game of soccer," Morgan said. "We came up with some words, and a couple of the words were "confidence" -- I think we showed that today-- and "united," and I think that we were united today."
It's one thing to pay lip service to such concepts; it's another to manifest them in a game. But the team's re-dedication of purpose, attitude, and intensity manifested clearly, and it produced results. Edwards, one of the few Thorns to play solidly all season, upped her game even more, vexing FCKC's midfield and delivering thoughtful balls into space. Long played her best game of the year, beating other players to balls and asserting herself in the midfield. She scored off a deflection in the 66th minute because she was in the right place at the right time, and she had fought all night to get there. Christine Sinclair continued to make brilliance look easy. --her spot-on delivery into the box lead to Long's goal. The offense finally looked like it had a purpose, with each attacker making hard charging runs and rewarding each other with gorgeous assists for doing so.
"We were moving for each other, we were supporting each other, we were working for each other and with each other," Morgan, who assisted on both Long and Foxhoven's goals, said.
Of course, the Thorns made mistakes on both sides of the ball (and trust me, we'll get to the defense in a moment), but overall this team displayed marked improvement, and a willingness to adjust.
That willingness extended to Parlow Cone, who has been criticized by some for choosing what has appeared to be a constricted shape for an offense that has struggled to create chances. On Thursday, the Thorns offense spread its wings, as outside backs Marian Dougherty and Nikki Marshall repeatedly made high-quality runs to pull Kansas City's defense wide. The strategy lead directly to three of the Thorns goals, most notably on Dougherty's spot-on assist on Wetzel's goal.
"That was a conscious decision," Parlow Cone said of the aggressive approach. "I've been on them week in and week out about our outside backs getting forward a lot more, and also making sure we get players into the width even when the outside backs can't get forward." Of all the adjustments Parlow Cone made for this game, perhaps the most significant one was tapping Wetzel to start in the midfield. The Oregon State alum's signature dreadlocks and unflappable demeanor on the pitch have quickly made her fan favorite, but it's her consistent, reliable play that improves this Portland side.
"My role is to kind of be the safe one," the soft-spoken Wetzel said after the match. "I'm not really the goal scorer. I just get in there and pass the ball, move it around, get everyone settled. That's what I tried to do out there tonight."
Ah, but she scored anyway, and it was a joy to see her solid work rewarded. The goal came at the 19' mark, when Edwards delivered a good-looking ball up the right side. Something good usually happens when Edwards does so, and sure enough, the ball found Dougherty, who had streaked all the way from her defensive position to sneak in behind the Kansas City backline. Dougherty immediately served the ball through the six yard box to find Wetzel, who finished to the near post.
"I think it was just a combination of good passing and moving, and a great ball from Marian," Wetzel said of her first ever NWSL goal. "It was pretty hard to miss, to be honest."
Parlow Cone's decision to sub in Foxhoven for Shim at the half --much earlier than she usually does-- also paid off, and quickly, when Foxhoven made a far post run and put a precisely threaded Morgan pass into the back of the net at 48'.
"She's scored a couple of really important, really vital goals this year for this team," Morgan said of Foxhoven. "That's just how important that role is coming off the bench, just lifting that energy of the team. making those selfless runs that maybe a 90-minute player can't make, just working your butt for the team, and I think Dani came in and did that today."
For most of the night the FCKC defense was overmatched by the number of options the Thorns offense had created for itself. On Wetzel's goal, for instance, Dougherty had several options, including an open Long, who had loped up from back behind the play, plus Morgan and Sinclair, who were a few steps back as well. Long also made a great run on the Foxhoven goal, pulling defenders away from the far post, and almost scoring herself. These types of multiple organized runs require effort, which requires desire, which goes back again to those meetings that had taken place the day before.
For the first 30 or so minutes of the match, the quality of the Thorns' defensive effort mirrored that of the offense. But a breakdown lead FCKC's lone forward, the always dangerous Renae Cuellar, alone with the ball deep in the penalty box. Thorns defender Rachel Buehler made a desperate, hard tackle from behind --clearly a foul-- and FCKC was awarded a penalty kick. Kansas City's Lauren Cheney buried the PK easily on Karina LeBlanc's goal at 33'. After that, something switched.
"Definitely, momentum changed," LeBlanc said, "because we had had a lot of momentum. We were up two-nothing at that point."
Considering the dangerous nature of Buehler's play, the Thorns were lucky to not be a player down for the remainder of the match, but the defense still made it seem like they were. As Kansas City threw more numbers ahead in an effort to equalize, the Thorns found themselves stretched more and more, allowing for large cracks in the defensive wall.
"I think at times we were very good defensively, and at times Kansas City pulled us apart and we did not do as good of a job as we needed to," Parlow Cone said.
Much as Portland's outside backs were intent on making runs up the flanks, so too did Kansas City's Leigh Ann Robinson and Merritt Mathias have their way on the outer marks of their offensive third.
"We got spread out a couple times, especially on the switch or stepping to the ball but not getting that extra little bit of pressure that we were getting at the beginning of the game," LeBlanc explained. "We need to find that consistency. Defensively, you can't ever walk away from a game where you let in three goals and be like 'OK, we had that.'"
Considering the enormous pressure FCKC put on the Thorns defense, neither of Kansas City's non-PK goals were anomolies. But they certainly were odd. On goal number two, Robinson's cross from the near post looked like it might actually curve in. Williamson stuck a leg up awkwardly, but whiffed, and Cheney put a foot on the ball to poke it past LeBlanc. On Kansas City's final goal, a loosely marked Erika Tymrak got off a low shot through the defense from the top left part of the penalty box. The ball had little pace on it, but weirdly skipped past a diving LeBlanc.
"I want to come up with that save for the team, so I was disappointed, personally, with the goals," LeBlanc said. "The second goal --you just can't take your eye off the ball, even for that split second, There was a player coming in, I noticed her, and then the ball's in the back of the net. The third goal, that's footwork. I'll have to look at it again, but I take it personally. The whole team does."
Exactly. On Wednesday, this team decided to take some kind of personal accountability. That's the reason they won.
"Three goals is a lot of goals," LeBlanc said, just before she left the press conference podium. "But we're not gonna give up and we're not gonna die. We're just gonna keep battling and find a way to get the result. That's what we did tonight. So if anything, we walk away from this being proud of that."
Portland Thorns FC (7-2-1, 22pts) vs. FC Kansas City (3-3-1, 10pts)
June 6, 2013 – JELD-WEN Field (Portland, Ore.)
Goals by Half 1 2 F
KC 1 2 3
POR 2 2 4
POR: Morgan (unassisted), 13
POR: Wetzel (Dougherty), 20
KC: Cheney (penalty kick), 34
POR: Foxhoven (Morgan), 48
KC: Cheney (Robinson), 56
POR: Long (Morgan), 66
KC: Tymrak (Robinson), 81
POR: Morgan (Caution), 80
KC: Mathias (Caution), 88
Lineups & Stats
POR: GK Karina LeBlanc, D Marian Dougherty, D Kathryn Williamson, D Rachel Buehler, D Nikki Marshall, M Courtney Wetzel, M Meleana Shim (Danielle Foxhoven, 46), M Becky Edwards, M Allie Long (Jazmyne Avant, 84), F Christine Sinclair (capt.), F Alex Morgan
Substitutes Not Used: GK Adelaide Gay, M Elizabeth Guess, M Angie Kerr, M Nikki Washington
TOTAL SHOTS: 11 (Morgan, 4); SHOTS ON GOAL: 9 (Morgan, 3); FOULS: 12 (Edwards, 3); OFFSIDES: 3; CORNER KICKS: 2; SAVES: 5
KC: GK Nicole Barnhart, D Leigh Ann Robinson, D Jen Buczkowski, D Becky Sauerbrunn, D Merritt Mathias, M Sinead Farrelly, M Lauren Cheney, M Kristie Mewis, M Desiree Scott, F Erika Tymrak, F Renae Cuellar (Courtney Jones, 37)
Substitutes Not Used: GK Bianca Henninger, D Nia Williams, D Katie Kelly, F Melissa Henderson
TOTAL SHOTS: 17 (Cheney, 8); SHOTS ON GOAL: 8 (Cheney, 3); FOULS: 10 (Two players tied, 3); OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 5; SAVES: 3
Referee: Miguel Panduro, Jr.
Assistant Referees: Chris Hutchinson, Ronald Lagraff
Fourth Official: Farhad Dadkho
Weather: 77 degrees, partly cloudy