The Portland Thorns (1-0-0, 3pts.) made several high-profile moves this off season, but it was an old friend who turned out to be the difference maker, as midfielder Allie Long took advantage of a defensive lapse to score the lone goal of 1-0 victory over the Houston Dash.
With international stars Alex Morgan and Rachel Van Hollebeke out injured, midfielder Tobin Heath in France and major off-season signings Vero Boquete and Stephanie Catley away until the completion of their respective international competitions, it was the oft-maligned Long who stepped it up.
Much of the pressure from the opening whistle came from the expansion Dash (0-1-0, 0pts.),but the Thorns took advantage of an opportunity against the run of play. Following a Dash substitution that saw Teresa Noyola come off the bench to replace the injured Brittany Bock, new forward Jessica McDonald sent a deep throw-in to the box that found the awaiting Long, who headed in her first goal of the year inside the far post, past a diving Erin McLeod in the 24th minute.
It was one of many offensive forays in the attack for the midfielder, who took advantage of defenders putting their attention on forwards Christine Sinclair and the speedy McDonald, making several deep runs through the Dash defense.
Giving up the first goal didn't dampen the Dash attack, as they came back to earn one of a number of first half corner kicks. The ensuing kick forced new Thorns goalkeeper Nadine Angerer to show why she is one of the world's best, making a big punch on the ball in the 30th minute, one of several physical stops the big German, who joined the team in Houston coming off international duty in Germany.
The Dash continued to press, but the Thorns new backline of returnee Nikki Marshall, and newcomers Emily Menges, Rebecca Moros, and Courtney Niemiec would prove up to the task and appeared to get stronger as the match went on.
While the Thorns defense was able to weather the storm, familiar woes made an unwelcomed appearance, as linking through the midfield was often unsuccessful or non-existent, a recurring issue from last season. When the ball did make it into the attacking third, it would find itself skied over the goal or rolling past the endline, and the opportunities they did have were taken care of by McLeod and the Dash backline, including a solid chance by Long as the first half came to a close.
The Thorns came out pressing to start the second half, with a couple of solid chances, including a big blast from Long that hit the post in the 48th minute, and controlled possession for the first several minutes.
As the Dash began to reassert themselves and pushing against the Thorns' pressure, the play stayed contained to the middle of the pitch, with probing balls from either side trickling to the goalkeepers.
The Thorns found themselves with one of their best chances in the 59th minute, as McDonald found Long closing in on goal, but McLeod was able to get a hand on the shot and push it out for a corner kick, leading to another solid chance, as the ball was sent into the box past several Thorns and cleared away to Moros, who hit the ball right at the keeper.
Houston would have a couple solid chances of their own, with Ella Masar stealing a bad pass from Menges, but the rookie defender was able to recover and thwart any danger that the forward posed. Just a few minutes later Noyola found Stephanie Ochs inside the box, but Angerer parried it away. Ochs would find herself with another solid opportunity a few minutes later, as she found herself behind the Thorns' defense, but she sent the ball over the crossbar.
The Dash would continue to be the more aggressive side with the clock winding down, making attacking-minded substitutions, and began to throw everyone forward past the 80th minute, but once again Angerer and the defense were able to handle the pressure.
The Thorns would have one last strong chance, as Long found herself at the top of the 18 yard box, but a timely poke by a Houston defender forced the ball away.
With only a few minutes left, the Dash went all in on the attack, and Tiffany McCarty found herself at the end of a cross with a point-blank chance, but Marshall recovered and send the ball over the endline.
With one final chance, the Dash thought they had the equalizer, as former Thorn Becky Edwards chested a headed ball in, but she was ruled offside, and the final whistle blew seconds later.
While the Thorns came away with the result, the match leaves more questions than it answered. They looked solid defensively and Angerer was as good as advertised, the attack was non-existent aside from the McDonald-Long connection, and that won't be good enough facing the tougher teams in the league, facing a tougher challenge when they will next week when they head to New Jersey to take on Sky Blue FC.
- The Thorns and Dash met for the first time.
- With an announced attendance of 8,097, Houston set an NWSL record for opening weekend attendance.
- Houston featured two former Thorns: midfielders Becky Edwards and Nikki Washington, who both started.
- With injuries and absences, the Thorns only had 5 of their 8 returning players available from last year's championship squad.
- 9 players made their debut with the Thorns today, including two rookies, Menges and Niemiec.
- Long led the Thorns with 5 shots, 4 on goal,
- Menges flew into the match from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where she is set to graduate next month.
- Despite facing pressure all night, Angerer only needed to make 2 saves.
- The Thorns are uncertain when Morgan and Van Hollebeke will return from injury.