The haters and allocation conspiracy theorists probably didn't like it so much on Sunday when Alex Morgan slipped a ball past Red Stars goalie Erin McLeod within three minutes of the opening whistle. It must have been irritating to this particular set of truthers to see such a manifestation of the Morgan mystique, well before anyone even had a chance to break a sweat.
Or maybe they enjoyed it, in a way -the quick strike, after all, probably confirmed their agitated theories: Dude, this team has Sinclair and Morgan, you could hear them murmuring across the Internet. You could surround those two with a team of blind, one-legged monkeys and they would still score.
Well, maybe. But here's what happened Sunday, when the Thorns traveled to Chicago and topped the Red Stars, 2-0, securing Portland's five-game unbeaten streak, four-game win streak, and first-place spot atop the NWSL standings: The game may have begun with a bit of Morgan flash, but it was clear --from Rachel Buehler's dogged defense to Karina LeBlanc's stalwart goalkeeping, from Nikki Washington's precise feeds to Allie Long's pinpoint strike, from Meleana Shim's pesky attack to Cindy Parlow Cone's game plan-- this win was the product of a team effort.
For one thing, that first Thorns goal may have owed more to McLeod's error than Morgan's prowess, although the latter's athleticism certainly didn't hurt. The crowd of 1,329 at Chicago's Benedictine University Sports Complex barely had time to buy their popcorn before Thorns defender Nikki Marshall slipped a well-paced ball to Morgan who, for some inexplicable reason, had been allowed to canter freely through two Red Star defenders in the left half of the penalty box. McLeod seemed to have the near post on lockdown, but Morgan used her favored left foot and somehow managed to place the ball under the keeper's hand.
The three-minute goal proved to be the only one needed for the win, but two people not named Morgan and Sinclair decided to hook up for a sweet little 35th-minute goal anyway.
Streaking down the right sideline, Nikki Washington received a pass in stride, which she then converted into her best cross of the year. Curling around two defenders and an also-streaking Morgan, the ball landed, perfectly timed, at the feet of Allie Long who made a quick business of striking it into the back of the net. The 2-0 lead pushed the Red Stars from concern-mode to crisis-mode, and cemented Portland's stranglehold on the match.
Of course, it's not as if the Red Stars didn't have their chances. Shortly after Morgan's goal,
Chicago's standout Lori Chalupny made an aggressive midfield run that ended with a nice pass to Zakiya Bywaters. Bywaters appeared set to turn the corner and shoot, but Thorns defender Rachel Buehler closed quickly, corralling Bywaters and forcing her into an awkward, harmless shot. It was par for the course for Buehler, who has played some of her best defense in the past two games.
The Red Stars almost equalized again at 22', when Julianne Sitch ripped off a close-range, high-powered shot, but LeBlanc made an excellent leaping punch to shut down the threat -the save of the night for the Thorns keeper.
Still, Portland enjoyed the better run of the offense. Of the 15 shots taken by the Thorns, a number proved to be quality. Midway through the first half, Marshall flirted with a long-range golazo after cracking a 20-yard bomb that McLeod managed to just punch over the crossbar. At 10' Morgan almost replicated the exact same goal as she had made six minutes before. Chesting down a gorgeous 30-yard pass from Sinclair, Morgan raced toward the near post at a similar angle as her earlier goal. Only this time, McLeod aggressively came out to shut it down.
Occurring shortly after Long found the net, the most dramatic close call was Sinclair's, From the midfield line, Washington popped off a pass with the aplomb and accuracy of a Tiger Woods chip shot. Sinclair chested it to her feet and volleyed over McLeod's head. The ball hit the crossbar, clanged down, and appeared to cross the goal line, but was ruled out. Sinclair thought it was in. The Thorns thought it was in. From the announcers booth, Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler made it clear he thought it was in. The official, however, did not.
Ultimately, it didn't matter. By the end, the Thorns tallied nine shots on goal and four corners. In other words, it was a game in which the final score easily could have read 3-0, 4-0, or 5-0. But perhaps more importantly, each of those goals could have had a different last name next to it on the score sheet. Morgan just happened to be one of them.
The win marked the end of three weeks' worth of road games for the Thorns. The team faces a quick turnaround, hosting second-place Sky Blue FC at Jeld-Wen on Thursday, May 16, and the surging Washington Spirit on Sunday, May 19.
Portland Thorns FC (4-0-1, 13pts) vs. Chicago Red Stars (0-3-2, 2pts)
May 12, 2013 - Benedictine Sports Complex (Lisle, Ill.)
Goals by Half 1 2 F
POR 2 0 2
CHI 0 0 0
POR - Morgan (Marshall) 3
POR - Long (Washington) 35
POR - Buehler (caution) 52
CHI - Mautz (caution) 54
Lineups & Stats
POR: GK Karina LeBlanc; D Marian Dougherty, D Rachel Buehler, D Kathryn Williamson, D Nikki Marshall, M Becky Edwards, M Allie Long, M Meleana Shim (Courtney Wetzel, 84), M Nikki Washington (Danielle Foxhoven, 56), F Christine Sinclair (capt.), F Alex Morgan (Jessica Shutfelt, 89)
Substitutes Not Used: GK Adelaide Gay, D Jazmyne Avant
TOTAL SHOTS: 15 (Morgan, 7); SHOTS ON GOAL: 9 (Morgan, 5); FOULS: 4 (Four players tied, 1); OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 3; SAVES: 4
CHI: GK Erin McLeod; D Lydia Vandenbergh, D Taryn Hemmings, D Carmelina Moscato, D Rachel Quon, M Julianne Sitch (Jackie Santacaterina, 46), M Lauren Fowlkes, M Leslie Osborne (Jessica McDonald, 72), M Zakiya Bywaters, M Lori Chalupny, F Ella Masar (Alyssa Mautz, 29)
Substitutes Not Used: GK Taylor Vancil, D Michelle Wenino, M Dinora Garza, F Maribel Dominguez, F Hanna Gilmore
TOTAL SHOTS: 10 (Two players tied, 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 4 (Four players tied, 1); FOULS: 12 (Bywaters, 3); OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 2; SAVES: 7
Referee: Kari Seitz
Assistant Referees: Jennifer Jones, Cesar Ibarra
Fourth Official: Greg Dopka
Weather: 55 degrees, mostly sunny