Allie Long’s third goal in two games was all the Portland Thorns needed to capture a 1-0 win over the Western New York Flash in front of 13,148 fans in a sun-drenched Providence Park.
Long nodded home the eventual winner when she beat Flash goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo to a Sinead Farrelly 22nd-minute cross and blooped a header into the bottom left corner.
The goal was a deserved result of a first half in which the Thorns dominated through the midfield. Playing once again with three at the back, the extra player in the Thorns’ central-midfield box of four allowed Portland to control the run of play throughout the first half.
“I think the box has been brilliant so far for us,’ Riley gushed after the game, "Even today in the first half, I didn’t think they played as quick as they did last week, but . . . I thought the possession was really good."
With Western New York struggling to string passes together through midfield, the Flash turned to the Thorns' flanks to try to generate chances, but a 38th-minute Lynn Williams shot from the top of the box that dribbled just wide was the best Western New York could muster.
What looked like it would be another Thorns rout, however, turned significantly tighter when Kat Williamson, the backbone of the Thorns’ backline, went off at halftime with a concussion.
“Obviously losing Kat at halftime changes a little bit, we went from thinking we were going after another goal, or two goals, or three goals,” Riley said postgame, "to thinking ‘we don’t have another centerback that’s available for selection.'"
Missing Williamson and Rachel Van Hollebecke (who went down with a niggling injury midweek), Riley responded by shifting into a 4-2-3-1 that he called the “Timber formation." Immediately the midfield dominance that Portland enjoyed through the first stanza vanished, however, and Sam Mewis, who the Thorns had kept virtually nonexistent in the first half, emerged as a major force in the game.
In the 51st minute some chaos in the Thorns' defending box led to Mewis getting foot to the ball in a dangerous area, but Portland's defense stood tall and cleared off the line with goalkeeper Nadine Angerer beat.
Nine minutes later Mewis again found herself in space on the right side of the box and looped a dangerous cross toward the back post, but the Thorns’ substitute right back, Rhian Wilkinson, was there to nod the ball clear.
Riley, however, was pleased with his team’s resilience in the face of the Flash’s second-half pressure. “I credit our group. They hung in there. It wasn’t pretty like last week. It was just down and dirty and blue collar."
Although the tempo slowed considerably for the Thorns in the second half, Portland grew back into the game as the half went along. And by the time Christine Sinclair came on to make her 2015 Thorns debut in the 70th minute, Portland had the game well in control.
Although just two weeks into the season, the win puts the Thorns atop the NWSL table after a perfect six-point homestand. And with all five of their goals having been scored by players who will stay with the team through the World Cup this summer, the Thorns have to feel confident about their ability to weather their midseason losses.
But if Long’s performance is making the Thorns’ summer plans look rosier, it was her first-half goal that proved enough even when Portland’s plans went awry when Williamson went out against the Flash.
“We always say if you’re in the process of making a cake and there’s an ingredient missing in the cake, the cake doesn’t taste quite the same,” Riley mused afterward.
Winning, however, tastes just fine.