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Thorns scrape past Sky Blue FC 2-1

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A Thorns team missing a number of key players gritted out a 2-1 win in New Jersey tonight to officially knock Sky Blue out of the playoffs.

With Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Emily Sonnett, and AD Franch all in national team camp, the Thorns had to do make significant lineup changes over what’s been the usual starting XI for the last few weeks. With Britt Eckerstrom in goal, the back line consisted of Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Katherine Reynolds, and Ellie Carpenter. Angela Salem started alongside Celeste Boureille in a double-pivot, with Christine Sinclair in the number ten slot. With Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, Andressinha and Hayley Raso started on the left and right wings.

Portland got on the board in the fourth minute when Sinclair played Raso in with a nice through ball. The Australian drove into the box, cut the ball onto her right foot to beat Mandy Freeman, and put a bending shot past keeper Caroline Casey into the upper 90.

Just two minutes later, Crnogorcevic made it 2-0. Sinclair improbably kept a lofted ball in bounds on the left sideline, sending it toward Casey. With Raso putting pressure on the keeper, she passed directly to an onrushing Crnogorcevic, who had no trouble putting her shot away.

As the half went on, though, Portland’s lineup woes started to show through. Savannah McCaskill threaded a well-placed ball through the Thorns back line, who somehow all missed Imani Dorsey making a run into the box. Eckerstrom came off her line to try to dive on the ball. Dorsey sent her shot directly into the prone Thorns keeper, who couldn’t get a hold of the ball, and it bounced into the back of the net.

A similar play by Sky Blue in the 34th minute almost led to another goal for the home side: McCaskill served a ball over the top, Dorsey got on the end of it, and Eckerstrom was off her line. That time, Dorsey’s shot sailed well wide.

Late in the second half, Katherine Reynolds picked up a knock on a set piece as she and a Sky Blue defender both went for a 50-50 ball in the box; she subbed off for Elizabeth Ball to start the second half.

The Thorns were on the back foot for most of the second half. In the 61st minute, Sky Blue was unlucky not to equalize. McCaskill beat Ball and sprinted past Menges to get a shot from inside the penalty area. Her shot hit the right post and ricocheted off, falling to Dorsey, whose follow-up went well high.

Tyler Lussi subbed on for Andressinha in the 69th minute, and put a header on frame off a corner kick, which Casey handled easily. It was to be Portland’s only real chance of the half, and after that, things really opened up for the home side. Ball mostly did well after slotting in for Reynolds, but some of the closest calls of the half happened when she was up against McCaskill, who had a clear speed advantage. Raquel Rodriguez coming on for Sky Blue also injected energy into the game.

In the 81st minute, Christine Sinclair was issued a yellow card for a foul a few yards outside the penalty area, giving up a free kick in a dangerous spot. Rodriguez took the kick and hit the woodwork for the second, but not final time.

Portland brought Mallory Weber on for Angela Salem in the 84th minute, and the remainder of the game was a white-knuckle affair for the Thorns. Sky Blue had numerous close calls when the Thorns were packed into the penalty area but couldn’t manage to clear loose balls. After two successive Sky Blue corner kicks somehow stayed out of the back of the net, the whistle blew to send Portland home with the 2-1 win.

It was a nervewracking three points for the Thorns, but with so much of the team’s core missing, some difficulties were always in store. Portland heads into the international break in third place tied on points but with a game in hand over fourth-place Orlando.