The Thorns offensive firepower, featuring Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and new addition Vero Boquete was simply too much for Washington Saturday night at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
It was destined to be a struggle from the start for a Washington defense that included two players making their debut, captain Ali Krieger playing on just one day's rest after two 90 minute games in a week for the U.S., and missing goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, after getting a little banged up in her third-ever U.S. appearance last Thursday.
And that struggle started early. Just five minutes into the game, a pass by Krieger had too much speed and sent Niki Cross scurrying for the ball near the sideline. Cross played it back in towards the box, essentially right to the hovering Morgan, who shifted the ball to Sinclair squared up to the goal. Her shot went into the upper corner, out of reach of Spirit goalkeeper Chantel Jones.
Six minutes later, Portland struck again, this time on a free kick. Jones was forced out of position after a diving punch on the initial ball in from Sarah Huffman, Then a wild sequence that included two goal line blocks by the Spirit defense was capped by a Morgan header to put the Thorns up 2-0.
"The first 10 minutes is the craziest I've ever seen," said Spirit head coach Mark Parsons. "It was just a crazy, crazy 10 minutes."
The Spirit defense soon settled and successfully reached the half just two goals down.
After a run-in with Amber Brooks, Krieger left the game at the half. It was primarily a precaution as it appeared Brooks landed full stride on Krieger's right foot. Newcomer Lisa Devanna replaced Krieger, as Tori Huster, who made her first start in the midfield this season, dropped back to center back.
Christine Nairn cut the deficit in half in the 62nd minute. She sent in one shot that was knocked back to her by Nikki Marshall, but the follow-up with her left foot skittered past Portland goalkeeper Michelle Betos for her fourth goal of the season.
For a moment, it appeared Washington might make a game of it. But 10 minutes later, Morgan struck again, making Jones pay for a poorly struck ball on a pass back to her. Her ball went right to Morgan who chipped it over her head to put the Thorns up 3-1. A two-goal performance Saturday equaled her tally for the U.S. just 48 hours prior, and took the wind out of the sails of the Spirit.
"I knew that those first goals were really going to set me free mentally and just put me more at ease. And that's what it did," said Morgan who scored her first goals of the season, after a long ankle injury recovery. "Today I just felt like I was playing more freely and a lit bit more with confidence, and mentally, I'm not thinking about my injury anymore so I think that's the biggest thing moving forward."
Curiously, after Morgan's goal, Parsons went to just three defenders, taking off Alex Singer for Danesha Adams. Then the floodgates opened. Jessica McDonald entered for Morgan and promptly scored goals at 85th and 87th minutes. Allie Long finished the scoring in stoppage time to close out the 6-1 rout.
"When that third goal went in, I think the shape hurt us too much...went three at the back," Parsons said. "Going back, I don't think that helped us, it only hurt us. As soon as we went three at the back, we lost our rhythm and they looked more dangerous. I didn't help us there with the shape."
Jones faced 12 shots on goal and managed six pretty spectacular saves, in spite of the overall struggle.
"I've gotten a lot more mature since college. I'm a lot better at dealing with it. It still hurts. A lot. But I've learned a lot in my career," Jones said. "Sometimes the ball just doesn't bounce your way, or mistakes happen."
Parsons praised Cross, Singer, and De Vanna in their Spirit debuts.
"I thought the three new players did really, really well. I'm really excited about them," said Parsons. "It's just a shame that they have to come in on a game like that."
Cross was upbeat about her first NWLS game, in spite of the trial by fire she experienced in the match.
"It's exciting. My parents came down, and that really never happened when I was in Germany," Cross said. "Of course I miss being in Germany. But it's always good to have a new change and be closer to home."
Washington has 10 games remaining and next travels to Houston this Saturday. Crystal Dunn, recovering from a hamstring strain, is expected to get some minutes. German forward Kerstin Garefrekes is expected to join the team soon, as well.
"There's no doubt that we can make playoffs," Parsons said. "It looks like it's going to be six teams, fighting, scraping - we've put ourselves in a more difficult position. But now we've got 10 games and we got to go and win."