Portland fell 1-0 on the road against the Washington Spirit, dropping three points for the second week in a row in a sluggish game that saw missteps by the Thorns on both ends of the ball.
Washington got a number of chances in the first half, starting in the 9th minute, when Havana Solaun got a shot past Celeste Boureille in the penalty area. AD Franch blocked it, but couldn't get a hold of the ball, which landed at the feet of a waiting Cheyna Williams. Williams then took a close-range shot that was blocked by Emily Sonnett.
Mere moments later, Williams beat Meghan Klingenberg to send in a cross from the right to Meggie Dougherty Howard just in front of the near post, but Dougherty Howard hit her shot wide.
Portland had a chance of sorts in the 18th minute, when Ashleigh Sykes played a short sideways pass to Christine Sinclair high in the center of the penalty box. Sinc had a window through the defense, but couldn't put much juice on her shot, which skidded harmlessly to Stephanie Labbé.
Washington opened the scoring in the 19th minute on a transition play. A sloppy touch by Allie Long was scooped up by Francisca Ordega, and she dribbled into the Thorns' defensive third, faked a cut to the left to get around Sonnett, and fired a cracker into the far side of the net.
Three minutes later, Havana Solaun got around a flat-footed Boureille to hit the post with a hard shot from the top of the penalty area.
To start the second half, Nadia Nadim came on for Ashleigh Sykes, starting on the left wing and pushing Hayley Raso to the right. Nadim immediately put some punch into a sagging offense, connecting with the other two forwards more reliably than Sykes did and trading flanks with Raso several times.
In the 48th minute, Kristie Mewis turned Emily Menges to fire a weak shot directly at Franch. A minute later, Raso received a pass from Menges up the left flank, cut inside, and played a diagonal pass to Nadim, but it was cut out by Shelina Zadorsky.
Washington had another chance in the 63rd minute, when Ordega managed to thread a short pass through Portland’s back line from the right side of the penalty area as she was falling down. Williams got a foot on it, and the shot again rebounded off Franch, before being cleared by Sonnett.
One of the Thorns’ better chances came in the 61st minute, when Lindsey Horan played a pinpoint ball from the right of the penalty box to Allie Long’s just in front of goal, but Long’s headed shot went over the bar.
Dagny Brynjarsdottir came on for Amandine Henry in the 64th minute, probably with an eye toward getting some extra height on set pieces. Indeed, in the 73rd minute, Nadim dropped a corner kick directly to the 5’11 Dagny, but she headed it well wide.
In the 82nd minute, Raso threaded an excellent horizontal pass to Horan through Washington’s back line, and Horan dropped it back to Nadim, but her shot was blocked.
Mana Shim came on for Boureille in the 84th minute, and played the dying minutes of the game at left back, while Kling was pushed to the right. The last decent chance of the night went to the Spirit, when Ordega got one-on-one with Franch, who saved her shot.
Bad news first
Although this game wasn’t as high on the chippiness scale as last week’s Sky Blue debacle, (call it a Mean Girls to last Saturday’s Heathers), in many respects, it was painful in the same way. The defense, which often consisted of the two center backs with a dropped-back Long or Henry between them, was uncharacteristically disorganized, and way too easily exposed on transition plays. Ordega and Williams walked all over them throughout the first half, and too often, it was only individual heroism by Menges or Franch that kept the Spirit from adding to their lead.
Meanwhile, the offense mostly looked sluggish and devoid of ideas. Things picked up somewhat when Nadim came on for Sykes, but Portland couldn’t figure out how to stretch a Spirit back line that usually consisted of six or seven players by the time the Thorns got into their attacking third. And when they did expose Washington, as with Sinc’s shot in the first half, the finishing wasn’t there.
The really frustrating pattern, though, was Portland’s tendency to plink the ball around in their defensive third before losing it with a hard touch or a sloppy pass. Ordega, who’s been red-hot the last few games, wasn’t giving Portland’s defense any room to breathe, and pounced on every loose ball within a ten-mile radius. Solaun played a similar role in the midfield. With the Thorns, the issue isn’t individual, but widespread, with more than enough poor touches to go around.
Revealingly, Portland had the advantage in possession throughout the game (60% at the half, 62% after the final whistle), but managed fewer shots (11 to Washington’s 16). They’re holding onto the ball better than they did early in the season—when the midfield would crumble under any hint of pressure—but they build so slowly from the back that their opponents have all day to bunker for the eventual attack.
Some bright spots
Raso was a beast this week. She’s almost unrecognizable from the green speedster that arrived in Portland last summer, or even from the aggressive but rough-around-the-edges forward of earlier this season. Her touch and tenacity on the ball is vastly improved, and roaming all over the pitch, she’s begun to look a lot like Nadim—both an on- and off-the-ball threat who breathes life into the Thorns’ offense. The only piece she’s been missing is her finishing—or, in many cases, a willingness to try finishing instead of finding a final pass.
Late in the game, Portland had a few flashes of the kind of possession they want going forward. Raso is part of that; she’s gradually growing into an actual threat as a wide forward. She’s no replacement for Tobin Heath, but when she linked up with Horan, Nadim, and Sinc, you could see what they’re aiming for.
More bad news
The Thorns face Kansas City at home this Wednesday, then go on the road to Seattle next Saturday. Ordinarily, they should be able to handle Kansas City, who’ve struggled to score this season, at home, but the grueling schedule is going to make this a rough week. A few key players—well, mostly Henry—got a little bit of a break. But with Mallory Weber injured, the bench is looking as thin as ever. Sykes is going to have to integrate with the Thorns fast, and Shim and Dagny are going to have to step up.