PORTLAND, Ore. – Two weeks into the season we only have a tenuous grasp on each team’s capabilities, especially considering half the league has yet to play a second game. But Sunday in Portland, we saw a performance that shouldn’t be uncharacteristic of either Portland or Seattle. The Thorns were explosive, especially with Christine Sinclair on her game, while Seattle’s midfield proved the great equalizer, able to make up for their lack of stars in defense and attack.
As a result, most of the things we learned from Sunday’s game were already part of the discussion – ideas that just needed some kind of grounding. After 90 minutes in Portland, it’s time for some of those thoughts to take hold.
Here are five of the things we learned:
1. Yes, Jessica Fishlock is a force
Week one refrain: ‘That Jessica Fishlock was pretty good against Chicago!’
Week two refrain: ‘Jessica Fishlock is just good.’
Such is the impact the 5-foot-2-inch, 26-year-old has made on the National Women’s Soccer League. A Welsh international who’d previously played at Bristol Academy, Fishlock hadn’t had much stateside exposure despite her 68 national team appearances. One of only four European players to start the league’s first season, Fishlock’s arrival flew under the radar.
With a strong performance against Portland building on a standout debut in Chicago, Fishlock will no longer elude many’s attention. At JELD-WEN Field, the energetic midfielder proved a thorn in the side of Portland’s midfielders, her pressure on the ball constantly forcing negative balls and turnovers. In the 74th minute, her tenacity paid off on the scoresheet with her first NWSL goal.
In both Week 1 and Week 2, there may have been better individual performances, but combine the NWSL’s two rounds and Jessica Fishlock may be the league’s best player so far. On a team missing most of its stars, Fishlock’s outshining most of the league.
2. “Sinc” the brightest star
It says something for the quality of Christine Sinclair’s performance that she was able to outplay Fishlock, but in a battle of attacking (or, highest deployed) midfielders, Sinclair clearly won. Her move from forward into midfield allowed her to get the ball in front of Seattle’s defensive midfielders, insuring she’d be able to dictate the match.
As a result, Portland was constantly dangerous on the counter, with “Sinc” able to quickly find Alex Morgan when Keelin Winters wasn’t otherwise disrupting the Thorns’ attack. Portland’s transition play led to a number of first half set pieces, eventually resulting in the opening goal. In the second half, a turnover forced by Sinclair created the game-icing counter.
Against teams that don’t play with two holding midfielers (like Kansas City and Seattle did), Cindy Parlow Cone may not need to swap Sinclair and Angie Kerr in order to get her star the ball. That she can is a testament to Portland’s most important player, a player who is so much more than her 145 international goals.
3. Parlow Cone earning her coaching bonafides
Switching Sinclair and Kerr was not such an obvious move. With Sinclair’s scoring threat, some coaches may have been reluctant to move her farther from goal. It was certainly a mild surprise to those who’ve followed the Thorns to see Kerr, not Sinclair, playing closer to Alex Morgan.
Throughout preseason Parlow Cone’s emphasized interchangeability, and the relationship between Sinclair and Kerr was always going to be crucial. But in tweaking her team to face a midfield-heavy Reign, Parlow Cone showed she’s capable of making the small, game-to-game adjustments you see from successful head coaches. Not bad from a boss running her second professional match.
With that change, Portland’s coach answered some lingering, perhaps wishful questions. As onlookers spent the winter picking apart Thorns’ allocation-blessed roster, doubts arose about their defense, midfield, and coaching. They were mostly exaggerated, devil’s advocate arguments, but they were still relative concerns.
Through two games, Parlow Cone’s proved up to the task. She made the right call in Kansas City to bring on Danielle Foxhoven (who eventually drew the game-tying penalty), while her swap of Sinclair and Kerr allowed Portland to avoid a Sunday pitfall.
4. Perfect balance in Seattle’s midfield
Seattle became the first team to give up two goals in an NWSL game, but that number’s bottom line does a disservice to the Reign. On the road against the league’s most talented attack, Reign FC gave up goals on a set piece and a counter. While there were other chances that could have been converted (a first half header from Becky Edwards, a blast from Morgan that was cleared off the line), Seattle held up relatively well.
Goals count the same no matter how they hit the scoresheet, but thanks to the combination and balance in Seattle’s midfield, Portland could never build consistent success. With Fishlock disrupting play high, Winters’ second ball-winning job became easier in front of the defense. When Winters was caught out, Kaylyn Kyle was there to cover. Despite a Player of the Week-caliber performance from Christine Sinclair, Seattle’s midfield was able to hold their own, even chipping in a goal at the end.
In the wake of Sunday’s performance, Portland’s midfield continues to be criticized, but those may be the same devil’s advocate critiques that led to questions of Parlow Cone. At some point, FC Kansas City’s midfield deserves credit, as does Seattle’s, whose trio of Fishlock, Winters, and Kyle look to have formed one of the league’s better units.
5. Portland’s defense: Both shaky and untested
On the surface, two goals in two games seem to assuage concerns about Portland’s defense. Unfortunately, the details aren’t as positive, with two breakdowns in 180 minutes hinting Thorns FC’s backline may be mistake-prone.
Against Kansas City, it was a misread that let to third-minute goal from Renae Cuellar. In Portland, a long ball and a lost battle allowed Jess Fishlock to open her account. Both times, the goals stood out in a game of relatively few chances allow. Both times, you were left with the impression such mistakes could happen at any time.
In reality, Portland’s defense hasn’t been tested often. Kansas City let up after early pressure, allowing the Thorns a certain inept control. Seattle, for all their bite through the middle, couldn’t transition quickly enough to test Rachel Buehler and Kat Williamson.
At some point, the Thorns’ defense will be tested. Until then, “incomplete” stays in the grade book.