It only took three minutes into the inaugural NWSL match before the bubble of optimism surrounding the Portland Thorns FC was popped.
The pin prick came in the form of FC Kansas City forward Renae Cuellar, who glided through the right side of a collapsed Portland defense and booted the ball past goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc a mere three minutes after the first whistle sounded.
KCFC 1, Portland Thorns 0. Commence minor freakout.
The Thorns managed to sneak out of Shawnee Mission Stadium with a 1-1 draw, thanks to the display of understated badassery that is a Christine Sinclair penalty kick. But the result easily could have been more disappointing.
As much as Cuellar's quickie goal triggered a ripple of apprehension throughout the Thorns fan base, it seemed to knock the wind out of the team itself, a blow from which they did not recover until the second half.
Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone has stated from the start that she will have the team playing controlled, possession-oriented offense. Connecting passes, patience, and command are keys to this style. Instead we saw confusion, panic, and chaos.
Superstar gunners Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair and the rest of the offense did what they could, but they rarely received the ball, mustering a mere two first-half shots. The Thorns' highly touted midfield -initially thought to be one of this team's strengths-could neither connect its own passes nor intercept FCKC's. The defense? Well, it only took three minutes to falter, so that tells the tale. The team as a whole looked out of shape and on its heels. It was embarrassing, frankly, to see Sinclair and Morgan so deeply receded into their own territory, trying desperately to find a way to get a boot on a ball.
It was, as Sinclair said after the game, "hectic."
Commence bigger freakout.
The good news: Portland settled down in the second half, got itself together, and equaled KC's tally at 67' with Sinclair's beauty of penalty kick. Kansas City keeper Nicole Barnhart guessed wrong --she dove right, and Sinclair shot left-- but even if Barnie had read Sinclair's mind, she never could have stopped the Canadian's ice-cold blast that grazed the inner side of the net.
Never mind that the call --which occurred when FCKC's Lauren Sesselmann tackled Portland forward Danielle Foxhoven in the box-- leading to the PK was questionable: That play not only saved our bacon, it also served as a telling tipping point for the match, one that should give us some hope that the Thorns can rebound, adjust, and improve.
For one thing, the offense work had changed at the 64th minute, when Parlow Cone made the decision to replace midfielder Angie Kerr--who has looked composed in preseason but ineffective during this match--with Foxhoven.. Foxhoven stayed up front, with Sinclair dropping back just behind the line, where she looked more comfortable (or at least more effective). It was a good move on Parlow Cone's part. Now she has to decide if this is a sustainable strategy for a starting lineup, or a move reserved for a time when she needs to shake things up. But either way, it showed she was willing to take some coaching initiative, and it worked for the better.
Second, the foul that led to the PK was the result of much more coherent work by Thorns as a whole, as evidenced by the statistics alone. Chris Henderson of All White Kit worked his tail off to produce a detailed stat sheet covering both halves of the match here (even though it's unofficial, it should be pretty close to accurate). Even a quick glance at the numbers shows the Thorns' improvement in the second half. While the Thorns second-half numbers proved almost exactly the same as the first half, FCKC's performance dropped, and the two teams' numbers concerning number of passes, time of possession, pass completion, etc. were almost identical. This tells us that either Kansas City came back down to earth, the Thorns' defense played better, or a combination of the two. Witnessing the game, it seemed the latter was the case, which is a vast improvement over the first half run of play.
Finally: That PK put the Sinclair Factor on full display. During the offensive scramble that defined much of this game, Sinclair rarely touched the ball. When she did, her skill as the top female player in the world outclassed everyone on the pitch -especially when she fired off a rifle shot that missed the top of the goal by inches in the first half. Had that ball gone in, the character of this entire game might have been very different. As it is, on her PK shot, Sinclair managed to make beating Barnie look easy and everyday, almost casual, which is a testament to Sinclair's superlative skill. If we can just get the motor running and get the ball to her (and Morgan, of course), this team will be fine.
So, ratchet down the meter from Freaked Out to Somewhat Worried. But it's a long season; the needle could move either way.
Portland Thorns FC (0-0-1, 1pts) at FC Kansas City (0-0-1, 1pts)
April 13, 2013 - Shawnee Mission District Stadium (Overland Park, Kan.)
Goals by Half 1 2 F
KC 1 0 1
POR 0 1 1
KC - Cuellar (Mewis) 3rd minute
POR - Sinclair (penalty kick) 67
KC - Mewis (caution) 43
POR - Washington (caution) 70
POR - Williamson (caution) 82
Lineups & Stats
POR: GK Karina LeBlanc; D Marian Dougherty, D Rachel Buehler, D Kathryn Williamson, D Nikki Marshall (Emilee O'Neil, 61); M Becky Edwards, M Allie Long, M Angie Kerr (Danielle Foxhoven, 64); F Nikki Washington (Courtney Wetzel, 90), F Christine Sinclair (capt.), F Alex Morgan
Substitutes Not Used: GK Adelaide Gay, M Meleana Shim
TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (Morgan, 3); SHOTS ON GOAL: 4 (Sinclair, 2); FOULS: 13 (Long, 4); OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 4; SAVES: 2
KC: GK Nicole Barnhart; D Becky Sauerbrunn (capt.), D Leigh Ann Robinson, D Lauren Sesselmann, D, Jen Buczkowski; M Casey Loyd (Courtney Jones, 72), M Merritt Mathias (Katie Kelly, 77), M Desiree Scott, M Kristie Mewis (Erika Tymrak, 81), M Lauren Cheney (capt.); F Renae Cuellar
Substitutes Not Used: GK Bianca Henninger, D Nia Williams, F Melissa Henderson
TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (Two players tied, 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 3 (Three tied with 1); FOULS: 11 (Two players tied, 2); OFFSIDES: 3; CORNER KICKS: 4; SAVES: 3
Referee: Kari Seitz
Assistant Referees: Kathryn Nesbitt, Kyle Atkins
Fourth Official: Jon Freemon
Weather: 64 degrees, partly cloudy