The Portland Thorns came away from the first game of the 2017 season with a 2-0 win against the Orlando Pride, on the strength of a penalty conversion by Nadia Nadim and a goal by Christine Sinclair. The match was the first to be televised under the NWSL's shiny new broadcast agreement with Lifetime, and the Thorns best-attended season opener to date, with more than 16,000 in attendance.
The first half was very first-game-of-the-season from both sides. A handful of defensive flubs nearly cost the Thorns their clean sheet, and the team had some difficulty adjusting to the Pride's high press.
Nadia Nadim had a near-look at a goal in the 14th minute, thanks to a well-placed cross from the right by Mallory Weber that she couldn't quite get a foot on. Then, in the 20th minute, Lindsey Horan played a perfectly-weighted pass to Meghan Klingenberg as she made a run into the 18; Ashlyn Harris dove the wrong direction, but Kling's shot was wide.
In the 31st minute, Orlando defender Alanna Kennedy had a handball in the box when Christine Sinclair tried to chip the ball over her head. Nadim slotted the ball to the left as Harris dove to the right, putting the Thorns up 1-0.
In the 67th minute, Allie Long robbed a hapless Maddy Evans in the center circle, made a run, and played an excellent ball between Kennedy and Ali Krieger for Sinclair, who beat Harris for a second goal.
Long put the ball in the net herself twice late in the second half—one off an expertly-placed free kick by Mana Shim and a second after a beautiful ball by Sinc—but both were called offside.
A rough first half
The first half, in unsurprising fashion given both that this was the first regular season game and many players had just gotten back from an international break, was an all-around rollercoaster: Mark Parsons, post-game, noted it was "like a basketball game." Neither side managed to control the game, and several bad decisions and inaccurate passes in and around the Thorns' penalty area very nearly led to Orlando goals.
Adrianna Franch had two major d'oh! moments: in the 10th minute, she passed directly to Kristen Edmonds, then came off her line to try unsuccessfully to recover the ball. Edmonds had a shot at an open goal, which, by the grace of the gods, she hit wide. Then, in the 42nd minute, Franch came off her line to meet a charging Chioma Ubogagu, where instead of clearing or collecting the ball, she tried to dribble Ubogagu and ended up fouling her for an Orlando free kick.
Emily Sonnett also had a bad giveaway when she tried to pass all the way across the Thorns' penalty box, where Pride forward Jasmyne Spencer easily intercepted it. Franch ended up saving Portland's collective butts on that one by coming off her line at the right time.
Needless to say, these are rookie mistakes that shouldn't happen—they're also likely just early-season wrinkles that will iron themselves out as time goes on. After a much more settled second half, it's not time to worry about these things just yet.
Another issue throughout the first half was the Thorns' inability to get behind Orlando's back line. There was plenty of promising build-up play into the attacking third, with Amandine Henry and Lindsey Horan linking up well and placing a number of surgical passes to Sinc and Nadim. But Portland's forwards were shut down repeatedly before they could get their shots or final passes off, and most of the scoring opportunities in the first half were shots from distance.
Allie Long is really good at soccer
If it wasn't clear already, Allie Long showed today why she's one of the best midfielders in the NWSL. After a first half where she sat back in a holding defensive role—often acting as a third center back while Kling and Celeste Boureille pushed forward on the wings—she switched to a more fluid role in the second half.
Granted more freedom to attack when she had the chance, Long came up, as Parsons put it, with "a piece of magic," as she took advantage of a hard touch by Evans to win the ball and link up seamlessly with Sinc. It was a play that encapsulated almost everything she does well: her tenacity and effectiveness in one-on-one situations, her excellent vision and passing accuracy, and her world-class playmaking ability.
The play also exemplified the near-psychic link between Long and Sinc, two of the four players who've been with Portland since 2013. Long knew exactly where Sinc was going to be, and Sinc knew where Long was going to pass.
"She's always our brain on the team," said Parsons. "She manages us a lot." Long is the core of the Thorns' central midfield, which, on a team as ridiculously talented as Portland, is saying a lot. I've harped a lot in the run-up to this game about how deep Long has been playing, but today showed that it can work for her to play the #6 role—as long as she also has the freedom to attack when the moment is right. Parsons wants a fluid Long-Henry-Horan trio to anchor this team, and if they can get that right, without wasting Long in a purely holding role, they can be very dangerous.
- All three of Portland's subs—Mana Shim, Haley Raso, and Meg Morris—did well, with Shim and Raso in particular making an immediate impact. Shim is the best form we've seen her in for a while, and had an excellent free kick to Long, who headed the ball home but was called offside. Raso is as speedy and hungry as ever, with an improved first touch over last season, and gave Portland some nice late-game offensive spark. Especially once Tobin Heath and Katherine Reynolds are healthy, I don't necessarily expect either to crack the starting 11, but both help make the case case that this is the deepest-ever Thorns team.
- Thanks to the NWSL's new deal with Opta, we finally get some real stats, including some fun data about each team's existing record. A couple highlights: in 2016, the Thorns had the best record by far when conceding first, winning 44% of those games (Sky Blue, in second place in that category, won only 22% of the time in the same situation). And to extend my praises for Allie Long, she led the Thorns in total passes, with 51, and tied in passing accuracy with Mallory Weber (who made just 17 passes), at 94.1%.
- The Riveters' Viking-themed tifo, a nod at last season's NWSL Shield win, was well-received by Long. "That was so cool, because one of my favorite shows is Vikings. I love Lagertha. So it's like these girls with shields and I like, love that."