Twelve thousand four hundred and forty six people streamed into Jeld-Wen on Saturday not quite knowing what to expect. The allocated players were 2,622 miles away, prepping for an international friendly, and in their stead stood Thorns players whose jerseys did not read "Morgan," "Sinclair," "Buehler," or "LeBlanc." The starting XI featured a crew of discovery players, drafted players, and players on the USWNT bubble, some of them battle-seasoned by previous experience, some of them brand-new to the big time. It was hard not to worry.
In the meantime, Chicago's side also featured some new names, but some of their changes -- namely the addition of a pair of veteran Germans, already hardened by their recently ended European season-- worked to bolster their team rather than hamstring it.
And, so, when it ended 2-0 in Chicago's favor, courtesy of set piece goals by Zakiya Bywaters and Jackie Santacaterina, it wasn't exactly surprising. What was surprising was how it happened.
Because Portland came out confidently. Portland slowly pushed its line up and forced the issue in the attacking third. Portland's outside backs made hard-charging runs that lead to opportunities in the box. Portland made some mistakes, but seemed intent and focused. Portland looked promising.
For 33 minutes.
But then, in the 34th, the Red Stars began prowling around the penalty box in front of Thorns goalkeeper Cris Lewis's goal. Unmarked Red Stars moved the ball with relative ease, switching fields with little opposition. A field switch led to a hand ball, the hand ball to a free kick, the free kick to a corner, and the corner to a Red Stars goal, courtesy of Bywaters, who headed home a pass from Michelle Wenino
"They found the back post and headed it back across," Thorns midfielder Becky Edwards explained after the game. "It was just poor marking in the box."
There wasn't a whole lot Lewis --a practice player who somehow, surprisingly, usurped second-string goalie Adelaide Gay to get the start in place of Karina LeBlanc-- could do to keep the close-range redirect from hitting the back of the net. Given the weird circumstance of her start, Lewis rose to the challenge, confidently charging off her line when she needed to throughout the game and making some solid stops.
"Cris Lewis played an outstanding game," Thorns had coach Cindy Parlow Cone said after the match. "Neither goal was her fault by any means. I thought she commanded her box very well and also had a good game in terms in distribution."
Still, after Bywaters scored, you could practically hear the air sputtering out of the balloon.
It's not as if the team quit trying, but it was as if they completely lost all hope. Oh, they fought, and they cared. But they didn't believe.
There were some bright spots. Shim had an excellent chance just minutes before Bywaters scored, when, thanks to a nifty feed from midfielder Allie Long, the newly minted forward found space to take a clear shot. Shim's shot had some pace and was on-frame, but a more skilled striker most likely would have put that bugger home. That's no knock on Shim, by the way --she's a natural midfielder, playing forward for the first time in her career.
Other good signs: Angie Kerr's delivery on set pieces proved as reliable as Fed Ex --that shit was in the right place, on time, every time. "Angie has a different soccer brain," Edwards said. "She's clever, and I think if we can get players thinking on the same page, whether that's Angie's page or Allie [Long]'s page or someone else, we just need to start clicking a little more."
In her first start, Courtney Wetzel was a steady as a metronome (her presence is so calm on the pitch, it's like her dreadlocks hardly move).
"I thought Courtney played with the composure of a veteran in the center midfield," said Parlow Cone. "She's a young player, just straight out of college right here at Oregon State, and she really stepped it up"
Along with Shim, forward Danielle Foxhoven at moments looked threatening. In fact, Foxhoven, Wetzel, and Shim combined on one play that could have lent the match a different tenor were it not for a slight mistiming. At 17' Wetzel lasered a perfect 30-yard line-drive pass right to Kerr's head in the 18-yard box. Kerr's pass landed at Foxhoven's foot, and the former UP star struck the ball, but just as a Chicago defender moved into to block it. It was a beautiful piece of combination work, one that fell just short of the mark --which was the story of the first 30 minutes or so of this match.
"I thought, especially in the first half, we put together some really good sequences," Foxhoven said. "I just think that the game happens so fast, and so for a lot of girls who haven't had the experience that Alex Morgan or Christine Sinclair have at this level, that maybe we're a step behind or just of a little bit kind off... with a little shove in the back, or just something that threw you off...that kind of thing where we missed it just a little bit."
Ah, yes, "a little shove in the back." After weathering the initial storm of the Portland push, Chicago pushed back, literally, and bullied a Thorns team that seemed unable --or unwilling-- to match their opponents in terms of physical play.
"A physical game always throws you off a little bit," Foxhoven continued. "I think it throws both teams off a little bit. There's not a rhythm. But it's something that comes with the game. That's why we play it. Not every game is going to be beautiful."
During the match, Parlow Cone seemed to take a less philosophical perspective. The usually stoic coach got into referee Christina Unkel's grill in the middle of the second half, intensely critiquing Unkel's officiating. The encounter grew so heated that Thorns assistant coach John Galas was ejected from the game.
"I'm not allowed to comment on the referees, unfortunately," Parlow Cone said post-match, looking down at the press conference podium. "I thought it was a hard-fought game --not dirty by any means, but just both teams going after it. I didn't think the physical play was the difference in the game. We got beat on set pieces today."
When asked what had occurred with Galas, Parlow Cone responded, "I have no idea! He didn't even say anything."
While it was not the final difference-maker, the physical play marked the second week in a row that the other team's strategy of manhandling play has disrupted Portland to the point of detriment. It was also the second week in a row where the Thorns failed to pick apart a patched-together defense, and the second week in a row where Portland has struggled to conjure up goals --both with and without their star players.
Two world-class players like Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair can make up for a lot of problems on this team, but the pair's absence may have also done this team a favor. It may have exposed some weak points to which we'd rather have turned a blind eye: This team struggles in the offensive third. This team tends to get pushed around. And this team too often looks like it just doesn't have a game plan.
Something tells me that's not quite what the thousands of folks at Jeld-Wen will ever come to expect. But, more important, something tells me that's not something that the Thorns are ever going to accept. The look on Foxhoven's face after the match was not one of a person who was satisfied. "After the game, Cindy told us there's no other team she'd rather be with," Foxhoven said. "I think we will respond positively. I think that this group we have right now is a blue collar team, a work-hard team. That's kind of been our mentality from the beginning."
Edwards put it perhaps more succinctly: "I'm glad we get to play again on Thursday."
Portland Thorns FC (6-2-1, 19pts) vs. Chicago Red Stars (1-4-2, 5pts)
May 19, 2013 - JELD-WEN Field (Portland, Ore.)
Goals by Half 1 2 F
CHI 1 1 2
POR 0 0 0
CHI: Bywaters (Wenino, Vandenbergh), 35
CHI: Santacaterina (Wenino), 61
POR: Edwards (Caution), 41
CHI: Chalupny (Caution), 56
POR: Guess (Caution), 90
Lineups & Stats
POR: GK Cris Lewis^; D Marian Dougherty, D Kathryn Williamson, D Nikki Marshall, D Jazmyne Avant, M Angie Kerr (Jessica Shufelt, 64), M Becky Edwards (capt.), M Courtney Wetzel, M Allie Long, F Meleana Shim (Nikki Washington, 64), F Danielle Foxhoven (Elizabeth Guess, 79)
Substitutes Not Used: GK Adelaide Gay, D Carlie Davis^, D/M Emilee O'Neil, M Amanda Dutra^
TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (Foxhoven, Shim, 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 4 (Four players tied, 1); FOULS: 13 (Avant, 3); OFFSIDES: 2; CORNER KICKS: 2; SAVES: 0
CHI: GK Taylor Vancil, D Taryn Hemmings, D Jackie Santacaterina, D Sonja Fuss, D Michelle Wenino, D Lydia Vandenbergh, M Julianne Sitch, M Ella Masar (Jessica McDonald, 83), M Zakiya Bywaters (Alyssa Mautz, 67), F Lori Chalupny (capt.), F Inka Grings
Substitutes Not Used: GK Jamie Forbes^, M Leslie Osborne, F Maribel Dominguez
TOTAL SHOTS: 10 (Three players tied, 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 2 (Bywaters, Santacaterina, 1); FOULS: 13 (Grings, 3); OFFSIDES: 2; CORNER KICKS: 4; SAVES: 4
Referee: Christina Unkel
Assistant Referees: Kathryn Nesbitt, Jason Perlewitz
Fourth Official: Andrew Brooks
Weather: 72 degrees, mostly sunny