Surprisingly, Washington actually outpaced Portland for shots on goal (7 to 5), but were unable to score in the run of play with the lone goal coming off a converted penalty kick by Diana Matheson, who beat Canadian international teammate Karina LeBlanc.
In a physical game, what the Spirit lacked in size, they made up for in fight, not backing down from the larger and more experienced side. The hard-working Spirit backline successfully neutralized Portland's dominant duo of Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, not allowing either to score in the run of play. US international defender Ali Krieger spent the entire game sprinting forward and dropping back, often covering huge amount of field to chase down the dominant Portland's frontrunners.
"Their backline is very good with Robyn Gayle, Tori Huster, and Ali Krieger, who is clearly world class. And then Ashlyn Harris in goal," said Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone.
A somewhat questionable foul was called on Spirit left back Domenica Hodak for taking down Morgan just inside the penalty box. Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris argued the call before and after the penalty was taken, earning a yellow card caution in the process. But Morgan, who said she didn't see anything to question, converted the penalty to put Portland up 1-0 in the 12th minute.
"She took me down and the ref has to call it, I think," Morgan said. "It definitely was a penalty because it was in the box."
Again, just before the half, Morgan was fouled by Hodak. On the ensuring free kick, Morgan again got tangled up, this time with Canadian midfielder Diana Matheson, after which there was a fiery exchange between the two, though Matheson kept a smile on her face the entire time.
"After the first foul, the ref called the foul and then there were obviously some words," Morgan said, "We were a little bit on edge. And then after the second foul, I was a little fed up. I’m not going to lie—sometimes I can get a little feisty."
In a game with two converted penalty kicks, the difference was a 51st minute goal by Nikki Washington, who took at advantage of a rare errant pass from Krieger and put her side up 2-0. It was a tactic Cone had urged her team to implement.
"We’re sorting our defensive pressure," Cone said. "We want to be a high-pressing team and I think we saw moments of it tonight."
Spirit forward Caroline Miller started in place of Tiffany McCarty for the first time this season. But neither she or McCarty when she came into the game in the second half could make good on their shots on goal.
Matheson, from the midfield, was the most dangerous player for the Spirit offense. She generated the penalty by pressing into the box off a pass from Krieger, and easily converted it. But much of her efforts stopped short without aggressive runs by the strikers to get to balls behind the defense.
"I don’t know if there’s ever anything to slow down that girl," said Cone. "She’s fantastic. I watched a ton of video before and she’s everywhere on the field. She’s just a tremendous player and I don’t know if it’s quite possible to slow her down."
The night was almost a moral victory for a home side, which showed it could hang with the most elite team in the league.
"I’m kind of tired of talking about how young we are, but it’s a reality when you look at Portland that has a lot of veteran players and we’ve got five or six rookies right out of the gate," said head coach Mike Jorden. "We’ve proven we can play with everybody and we can fight with everybody. We’ve just got to finish and create more chances more often."
Central defender Robyn Gayle said the last two losses have been tough in terms of results, but has been encouraged by some good sequences of play where the team moved the ball well.
"We’re still growing together as a group," Gayle said, "I think every game we’re improving on little things. We’re having great spells throughout the game. It’s about bringing that for 90 minutes."
In a year where there has been much scrutiny of Canada's decision to play most of the 2015 Women's World Cup on artifical surfaces, along with the fact most NWSL facilities have artificial turf, a notable highlight for both teams was the crowd and the field. The Portland Thorns were extremely complementary of both.
"I thought the field was amazing. It’s always nice to play on grass. It was a great grass field, perfectly maintained," Morgan said. "And also the sold out crowd--you couldn't have been in a better environment. For us, it’s great for to play in this sort of atmosphere and to see this many fans come out and support the NWSL."
For Portland, the league's most road weary team thus far, they play one more away game (at Chicago) before finally returning home. The Thorns had five of their first six games scheduled on the road.
"Having a lot of matches on the road is tough for us—tough on the body for travel and after seeing such a great turnout at the home opener, we want that home game again," said Morgan.
While it's never fun to speak of moral victories in the face of losses, I believe the Spirit can take this one as exactly that. Holding Morgan and Sinclair to no goals during the run of play is notable. And the Spirit definitely had a few chances down the stretch. I think if they'd had a few more minutes left in the game, they might have gotten it. The team was pretty tough to match when the backline was pushed forward.
And that leads me to one of the biggest challenges the Spirit have with their current personnel. Defenders Gayle and Krieger are two of the team's most experienced (both), physical (Gayle) and fastest (Krieger) players. Having them more involved in the offense is a difference-maker. As risky as it sounds, if I were Mike Jorden, I'd be chomping at the bit to just throw Krieger up top for a half and see what she could create and if the backline could hold without her. Matheson needs someone to combine with and she seems to have good early chemistry with Krieger.
Upon video review of the foul call the led to Morgan's penalty kick, it's unclear to me if Hodak actually committed the foul. To be honest, it was on the far side of the field and without a close-up replay, it's hard to tell. But I don't see a push by Hodak. It's possible their feet got tangled up. But in my opinion, this looked to be a case of a wily veteran getting the best of a rookie defender. Judging by Harris' reaction, she must have seen it the same way.
I have been remiss in not bring up Ingrid Wells. Her workrate is phenomenal. And her instincts are very good. She also listens to the direction she's getting from Lori Lindsey in the midfield. She doesn't always execute exactly as expected, but I think that will come with experience at this level. She's obviously under-sized, but I really like her determination and her quickness. She is often the only one ready for a quick throw by Harris from the goal. She's one to watch as I think she'll continue to soak up direction by her veteran teammates.
It's hard not to question the allocation process for NWSL when you watching Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair on one side of the field and Caroline Miller and Stephanie Ochs on the other side of the field. Ochs and Miller are admirable young players, but for the Spirit not to have been allocated any forwards with international experience, you just have to wonder what happened there. Perhaps the fault is solely on Washington for not pushing the issue. But seeing these two teams in person, it just felt ludicrous. Washington will need to find a striker that has played at the national team level, or we're going to spend a lot of time talking about moral victories here in Washington.
That said, Ochs continues to be strong in support of the defense and is a solid young player. Two weeks ago, I probably wouldn't have said this, but I might think about trying her in place of Julia Roberts in central midfield and using Miller, McCarty, and Jasmyn Spencer as forwards. Roberts has played admirably, but I'm not sure she's ready to be a starter at this level just yet. Ochs' confidence leads me to believe she could slot into a different role fairly easily and I think she actually may be able to have a bigger impact on the team's offense there. I could be wrong, but I see her as being one of the more versatile players on the roster.
It may be that this team is going to have to take an unconventional approach to its lineup and put the most skilled players in the places they can make the biggest impact. That may lead to some unconventional lineups and risk-taking, but it also may lead to some wins. The good news is there is some great potential.
Looking forward to next weekend's match with Boston, the Spirit will again face offensive firepower in LeRoux and O'Reilly. After a tie in their first meeting, I'm looking for the Spirit to regroup and find a way to get their first win next Saturday.
Editing to add:
The Washington crowd, while fabulous in numbers, was far too often cheering for the away side. I understand you all know Alex Morgan. But cheer for your home team. Only. Thanks to Ashlyn Harris for reminding me of this final point.
Only in women's soccer here in America do you have fans at home games who cheer for the away team. Hmm... #figureitout where's the loyalty?— Ashlyn Harris (@Ashlyn_Harris) May 5, 2013
Off soapbox now.