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Thorns attack solid in season opener, but still looking to improve

The 3-0 victory over the Royals was a good start, but Portland plans on continuing to grow.

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

It was a long time coming, and boy did it feel sweet when it happened. After numerous postponements — some due to global pandemics and others due to wildfires — the Portland Thorns finally played their regular season opener. And honestly, it couldn’t have gone much better.

The Thorns dominated the Utah Royals 3-0 — it could’ve been a lot more. They created numerous opportunities for themselves, thanks to excellent passing from seemingly everyone on the pitch, as well as some technical wizardry from Simone Charley. After having to wait so long to even play a regular season game because of the poor air quality, it sure felt sweet for Portland to get this win.

“It’s been tough obviously this whole year,” Sophia Smith said about the challenges. “It’s obviously not been normal...preparation going into a game, but we figured it out and it paid off.”

The offensive prowess was the greatest positive taken out of the first match. The Thorns struggled offensively earlier this year in the NWSL Challenge Cup. In six matches, the team tallied only three goals. It only took them one game to match that total. It wasn’t that they couldn’t get good shots; it was more like they weren’t finishing the shots they were given.

“I think in the Challenge Cup, we had our fair share of opportunities, but didn’t do the best job of putting it all together,” Charley said about the attack. “And that was something we definitely focused on is just not only having opportunities, but finishing those and finishing the attack.”

Head coach Mark Parsons noted that while the offense in the Challenge Cup struggled, it became a slightly bigger issue than it needed to be. He pointed to the draw against the Chicago Red Stars as the impetus for the problem, saying a goal in that game would’ve relieved some stress for the club. Still, he thought there were improvement throughout the Cup, and on Sunday he saw more improvement.

“Short version is: We moved forward during the Challenge Cup, we continued to improve, but we didn’t have much time with a new group, new players,” Parsons said on Sunday. “And today I think you saw a group that’s taken another small step forward.”

If the attack is anything like it was on Sunday for the rest of the Fall Series, then the Thorns are going to cause some problems. One of those players who should bolster the offense is Sophia Smith, the No. 1 overall pick drafted in January. Smith subbed in at around the 70th minute. It only took her until the 72nd minute to find the back of the net.

“I was just excited,” Smith said. “It’s surreal. I’m still trying to kind of process it but it’s so exciting.”

It wasn’t only exciting for Smith; it was a welcome sight for both the Thorns and Thorns fans. Smith missed the Challenge Cup earlier this year with a knee injury, delaying her debut. But now that she’s back and healthy, she’s just looking for more opportunities to show what she can do.

“I think injuries are hard in so many ways, and I’ve had to learn how to be patient when I’m super close to being able to play but I’m just not quite there yet,” Smith said. “It was definitely a frustrating process but it came with a lot of rewards and I feel really good about where I’m at now, so I’m just excited to keep growing and hopefully get more and more minutes in each game.”

The attack looked good, but it’s not quite perfect yet. The Thorns could still work on their finishing, and the Royals did a poor job marking up for most of the game. Like Parsons said, it was a step in the right direction, but this Thorns team is not a finished product by any means.

“It’s not ‘Can’t score, now scoring three goals, everything’s fixed,’ ” Parsons said. “It wasn’t that bad and today it’s not that great. It’s just an improvement...proud that we’ve taken a forward step, but we’ve got many, many more steps ahead with the attacking side of the game.”

If the Thorns still have some kinks to work out, then the rest of the league better be ready when they do.