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Thorns keep building for a better 2021

Portland beat the OL Reign last night 4-1.

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-Portland Thorns vs Houston Dash Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t think I need to tell you that 2020 has been a weird year for sports. The coronavirus pandemic threw off just about everything, forcing almost every major sports league to adjust their schedule so that they can even have the opportunity to play their respective seasons. The NWSL is no different, adopting the bubble strategy this summer in Utah for the Challenge Cup and now playing this Fall Series.

It doesn’t really feel like it, but there was a sense of normalcy in watching the Portland Thorns put together another masterclass performance on Wednesday. They shut down OL Reign 4-1 while Christine Sinclair put together a hat trick. The most disappointing thing was that there were no fans there to see it.

“I can’t wait to have fans back,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said. “I can’t wait to, obviously, let them feel and see live what we’re kind of seeing with this new group, a new team that continues to build.”

Continuing to build is what this fractured season has been about for Portland. The two things that Parsons emphasized as the goals for the club in 2020 were to grow as a new squad and to build confidence going into 2021. For Parsons, he saw that growth Wednesday night as the team struggled in the beginning against the Reign, only to put it together as the game progressed.

“I think the biggest way you can see our belief, our confidence, and also our mentality is we had some sloppy moments tonight,” Parsons said. “We did have some giveaways in areas that we wouldn’t want to, some unforced errors, but it didn’t shake our confidence in our belief to play the way we are going to play; an attacking team that wants to get out the opposition more, to control the game, and be aggressive when we don’t have the ball.”

You wouldn’t know it from the score line, but those four goals didn’t come easy — at least not initially. The Reign played the Thorns tough in the first 30 minutes or so, forcing Portland more wide then they would like and finding the better opportunities on offense. The Thorns weren’t as sharp completing those long crosses as they usually are either. Going into the first hydration break, it looked like it was going to be an even match throughout.

But it all broke open after that break. Portland took control of the match, finally finding the spaces they wanted offensively. That offense helped give the defense some breathing room, and before anyone knew it the Thorns were up 2-0 going into halftime thanks to Sinclair’s two goals. They just stayed patient and made the adjustments where needed.

“I think that we were expecting a tough game,” said Rocky Rodriguez, the Thorns midfielder who scored arguably the goal of the week last night with her second-half volley into the back of the net. “I think that we were able to adjust and read the strategy and then, you know, be able to do our game and keep our foot on the gas.”

If they continue to put pressure on teams like they did to the Reign on Wednesday, then they’ll be in good shape. It also helps when a world-class player like Christine Sinclair gets a hat trick to make it happen. The goal that exemplified the relentless attack Portland is aiming for was surely Sinclair’s last goal, when she took the ball after the Reign’s first goal and dribbled right past their backline.

“The thing we’ve been working on is finishing our attack,” Sinclair said. “Now, because our backline is so solid that we can take risks having to give up the ball, and we’ve got some world-class defenders behind us and obviously a world-class goalkeeper as well. So I think the team’s just really coming together right now.”

The fact this team is coming together right now makes it all the more disappointing that this is their last time playing in Providence Park for 2020. They still have two matches left, playing the Utah Royals on Saturday and the Reign on October 10, but both matches are on the road. Earning a victory over your rivals is always sweet, but earning it in front of 20,000 fans makes it even sweeter.

“Obviously in a rivalry match, once the whistle blows, it’s game on,” Sinclair said. “Doesn’t matter if there’s fans in the stands or not. But now that the game is over, it would have been nice to have the fans there for that one. It would have been a great party, I’m sure.”