Saturday, March 30, around 9:30 p.m., a few minutes after the Portland Thorns FC had taken on, and finished off, the Portland Pilots in a friendly at Merlo Field. The scoreboard said 2-1, Thorns, but the fierce look on head coach Cindy Parlow Cone's face said it all: Portland Thorns FC may have won its first match ever, but it wasn't the match the Thorns expected to play.
The problem: The Thorns had to come back from a 1-0 first-half deficit to get the result--not quite an expected script for a pro team taking on a college squad.
"You play preseason for a reason," Parlow Cone said. "Everyone who was here tonight saw we had a lot of mishaps and miscues and miscommunications. But that's what preseason's all about."
The worst of those miscues occurred when Pilot forward Amanda Frisbie scored the game's first goal at the 30 minute mark. In a brief moment that went completely against the run of play, Frisbie beat defender Kathryn Williamson and chipped the ball over Thorns keeper Roxanne Barker's head and into the net.
It was not the most auspicious beginning for a brand new professional team expected to dominate its league, but then again, the Thorns were missing their allocated players, who are currently abroad on their respective national team duties. And while it was awkward that the Pilots scored first (or scored at all, really), the good news is what an anomaly the opportunity was in the first place. The Thorns simply dominated the match from the get-go, displayed a litany of positives and in the second half, after going into the locker room down 1-0, came out with a greater sense of urgency.
"I told them [at the half] we have to come out and fight harder and move the ball a little faster," Parlow Cone said. "We were a little bit lethargic in the first half and moving the ball too slowly, and we weren't able to unbalance their defense. In the second half we did a much better job of it and got better chances."
Indeed, the first half was an exercise in frustration, as the Thorns tore off 10 shots to the Pilots' three, but never found the net. But shortly into the second half, the first goal in Portland Thorns history arrived: The equalizer came the 52nd minute, when Thorns forward (and former Pilot) Danielle Foxhoven punched the ball through a scramble of defenders into the net.
"I know that they had a lot of players crashing the box and I saw their goalkeeper sliding one way and I knew to go to the back post where she wasn't," Foxhoven explained after the game.
The winning goal came from midfielder Allie Long, who ripped an absolute rocket from a little over 20 yards out into the left side of the net at the 73' mark.
"The whole game I was waiting for that shot-- I kept wanting to take a touch and hit it, and for whatever reason it just wasn't working for me," Long said after the game. "So when it popped up to me and I was able to hit it felt so good to just strike it perfectly."
Post-match, the victory celebration was tempered somewhat by the wobbly start, and understandably so, but it's important to remember that the Thorns positively dominated the match, pushing the back line well up-field and peppering keepers Erin Dees and Nichole Downing with a total of 23 shots, 14 of which were on goal. The Pilots managed only six shots.
"That's the game of soccer," said midfielder Angie Kerr. "It just takes one counterattack and they can put it away and the whole game's changed. And that's kind of what happened to us, which in a way is good. It tested us and we had to come back from being down and see what we what we're made of."
Although it wasn't always executed by a team that's still getting its sea legs, Parlow Cone's system seemed clear: Possession-style, with short-game focus, triangular passing, and pushing the ball ever forward, keeping the pressure on. The back line played pretty much as high as possible, which contributed greatly to the Thorns territorial dominance, while also leaving the door open for a swift counter-attack by the Pilots.
That counter-attack was usually thwarted and turned back on itself, however, by a bedrock of a midfield. Spearheaded by the skilled Kerr, anchored by the solid Becky Edwards, and flanked on the left by Long and the right by Nikki Washington, the middies accounted for 15 shots, consistently set up the forwards with well-placed balls, and executed many of their connecting passes with strength and precision. In the meantime, they managed to cover for the sometimes sketchy back line. Even without Tobin Heath, the midfield is a key asset for this team. Seeing this line link up with Morgan and Sinclair should be a joy. With those two plus Heath, it could be jaw-droppingly good.
As a whole, when the team executed Parlow Cone's system, it looked great. The controlled passing and possession resulted in a lot of chances. This particular night, the offense just couldn't quite finish in the first half.
That said, three areas of concern stood out.
First, although the Thorns ripped off 23 shots, the forwards' attack feels a little flaccid sans Morgan and Sinclair. Of those 23 shots, only six came from the forwards--four from Foxhoven, none from Nicolette Radovcic, and two from Shufelt (who started the second half in place of Radovcic). Granted, this was just one game, so it remains to be seen if the trend continues. If it does, depth on the front line will be a worry when Morgan and Sincy are called for their national team duties, or (God forbid) if they are injured.
Second, hoo boy, did that left side of the defense look leaky at times. Almost all of the Pilots' chances came through the portion of the back line guarded by Williamson and Jazmyne Avant. The pair simply got beat, repeatedly--sometimes outmatched skill-wise, sometimes outrun (surprising, since Avant's got some wheels), and sometimes reacting a half-beat too slowly. I'm looking at this as our biggest worry.
Finally: At times the Thorns players looked a little tuckered out. Is fitness going to be an issue? When you remember that this was the first match after only three weeks of training, and played against a team in mid-season shape, probably not. But it remains something to keep an eye on.
Overall, though, despite the shaky beginning, the Thorns displayed the potential to be the most formidable team in this young league, especially with this solid midfield, which appeared as set and determined as Parlow Cone's jaw was after the game.
Captain Kerr. A former Pilot standout, Kerr was given the armband just before the start of the match. "It was a total honor," Kerr said. "I had no idea I was going to get to captain this game and just to be back here on Merlo--you just never think you're going to get back here again. So I just feel really lucky."
Support Group. A small contingent of the Thorns Alliance support group held down the fort behind the west goal. It seemed a bit of working out of preseason kinks for them as well, as some chants worked better than others. This should be a rowdy and very cool crew, naturally.
The Alliance busted out a tifo flag depicting a sword, skull, and rose with thorns after the team scored. The SG also scarfed Parlow Cone during the half. After the match, the players approached the west side of the field and applauded, after which Parlow Cone held her scarf aloft and was met in kind. During the next couple of hours, many players tweeted their appreciation as well. Should be fun watching this relationship grow.
Fire in the Belly. This team's got a little pepper to it, as seen when fullback Marian Dougherty (who had a very good game) shoved around a few Pilots players in defense of Washington, who also held her own during some chippy moments.