In a game with more narratives and footnotes than Infinite Jest, the Portland Thorns earned a 3-3 draw against the Chicago Red Stars on Sunday afternoon in front of crowd of 12,534 at Jeld-Wen Field.
This being the Thorns first nationally televised game, an additional TV audience of several thousand (numbers will be released Wednesday) witnessed a sudden, gut-wrenching, late-game meltdown by a Thorns team that had dominated the first three quarters of the game. Twice, the Thorns earned two-goal leads, and twice those were cut to one-goal leads, until an 84th-minute blast by Chicago's Julianne Sitch tied the game.
"We created a lot of chances; we scored the most goals we've scored in a long time," said Thorns striker Christine Sinclair, who kicked her 10-game scoring drought to the curb with a pair of goals. "It was just a little unfortunate the last 10 minutes of the game."
Mana Shim, who continues to make her case for Rookie of the Year, scored the third goal.
Let's try to untangle this, shall we?
First: In the past few weeks, Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone has emphasized working on the offense, and it's showed. Choosing a starting XI clearly geared toward an aggressive push, the oft-maligned first-year coach clearly has responded to the need to get her team's offense in gear.
Of course, having Tobin Heath on your squad doesn't hurt that endeavor, especially when the trickster midfielder teams up with a crafty vet like Sinclair. In the 23rd minute, we saw exactly what kind of magic the pair could work. After Portland earned a free kick about seven or eight yards outside a top corner of the penalty box, Sinclair and Heath had a brief discussion. As the Red Stars diddled around setting up their wall, Sinclair casually sauntered toward the goal, still kind of chatting with Heath. They looked as if they were still clearing up how the set piece was going to work.
Only they had actually already decided. As the Red Stars players milled about, Sinclair broke toward the goal. Heath chipped a pass over the loosely formed wall, Sinclair gathered it with only the keeper Erin McLeod to beat, and easily netted it in the corner. You couldn't help but smile and think, "You cheeky little f*ckers!" as the scoreboard converted to 1-0, Portland.
In fact, can we pause for a moment here to bask in the casual greatness of Sinclair and Heath? Here's what Sinc had to say about that goal:
"Tobin and I were lining up and she asked if I wanted to hit it, and it was a weird angle so I told her, ‘Nah, I don't think I'll shoot from from here, but you can chip it over the wall,' and she was like, ‘OK,' and then that happened."
Translation for mere mortals:
Sinclair: "Yeah, I guess I could try for a golazo, but my Temple Grandin-like soccer mind allows me to see things on the pitch that 99% of the world doesn't see, so perhaps you could just hit an absolutely perfect delivery over three defenders' heads, right to my foot, and also don't give away that you're doing it, because it's a sneak attack. And then it will just be me and the keeper, and I'm pretty sure I will score."
Heath: "Sure. No big deal."
Yeah, so that happened.
Portland took the 1-0 lead -and a load of confidence and momentum-into the locker room at the half. The goal differential easily could have been more dramatic, as the Thorns defense tamped down the Red Stars' threats, and the offense unfurled a number of cohesive attacks. A perfect metaphor for Portland's offensive output occurred at 23', when Heath blasted a rocket of a shot that McLeod saved...with her face.
Heath wasn't making any friends this particular afternoon. Just 15 minutes into the match, the Thorns midfielder recklessly tackled Red Stars captain Lori Chalupny from behind. Chalupny, who is Chicago's greatest scoring threat, crumpled to the turf and had to be helped off the field with an ankle injury (later X-rays proved negative), and she was replaced with Mautz.
"Lori's a good friend of mine," said Heath, who after the game went to check on Chalupny and give her a hug. "I think she's a fantastic player. She took a long touch and I thought I could get there and I definitely took her down. I deserved that yellow completely."
Actually, Heath deserved a red. Either way, the play set the tone for a chippy match in which the two teams shared five yellow cards, a few of which were tainted with extra bits of drama.
At 41', for instance, Thorns midfielder Allie Long leapt to head a ball when Mautz flew rather late to make an attempt herself. Mautz' head bashed Long's, knocking her to the turf with a bloody cut above her eye. Yellow card, Mautz. Long returned after treatment.
"They need those three points, so they obviously were going to come out and give it all they had," Heath said of Chicago's aggressive play. "We kind of played into that and we made it a battle out there when we should have put the ball on the ground and...played through them."
At 71' Thorns forward Alex Morgan, who had failed to convert on some decent looks on goal, appeared to pull a Chicago defender to the ground. The foul was called on Morgan, who kicked the ball in frustration. Yellow card, Morgan.
Parlow Cone pulled Morgan from the match four minutes later, in exchange for Tiffany Weimer.
"Alex has a couple bumps and bruises," Parlow Cone explained after the match. "I just wanted to try and protect her. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20, and I wish I had left her in now."
Morgan was not available to the media after the game.
Whether it was Morgan's absence, fatigue, or a loss of concentration, as soon as that substitution was made, the tenor of the match changed. Mautz had already scored on a 60th-minute golazo. She earned her brace by splitting the defense in the box and heading the ball past a diving Karina LeBlanc at 75', making the score 3-2. Nine minutes later, an unmarked Sitch collected a loose ball in the box and drove it home to tie the game.
There is much more to parse here, but, frankly, the tight schedule between this game and Wednesday's crucial meeting with Sky Blue FC dictates a quick turnaround, so I'm relegated to just some final notes below. Please discuss in the comments --I'm curious what y'all thought of the match.
- Mana Shim's 55' goal, which put the Thorns up 2-0, resulted from her usual spunky hustle combined with Morgan and Heath's ability to draw attention from opposing defenses.
- The Red Stars had no shots on goal in the first half, and six in the second.
- Portland's backline played solidly for 75 minutes. Some of this was due to the constant pressure supplied by the Thorns offense, but much of it was simply superior play. The late-game collapse seemed due a combo of fatigue, tactics, and execution--an all-around failure.
- LeBlanc played well also, twice cutting off angles to prevent Chicago attackers. There wasn't much she could do about any of the three goals. but then there was that weird volley she just stopped and watched. I was hoping to talk to her about this, but the only players available to the media after the game were Heath and Sinclair.