BOYDS, Md. — Portland Thorns FC defeated the Washington Spirit 2-1 in front of record-setting crowd at the Maryland Soccerplex. A total of 5,011 fans were present besting the previous record for a women’s game at the Soccerplex by more than 300. The crowd was treated to entertaining, if controversial, game as Alex Morgan scored from the penalty spot and Nikki Washington each notched a goal for Thorns while Diana Matheson scored for the Spirit.
Judging from the number “Baby Horse” signs and large applause she received when announced, it was clear that a large segment of the crowd came to see Morgan, the U.S. women’s national team superstar. The applause for Morgan easily eclipsed that for any of the home team’s players.
“For me personally, it’s something that’s new to me to have all these little girls screaming my name,” she said. “If it brings popularity to the sport and brings some development and creates the passion for them to want to play professional soccer then I’m all for that.”
Morgan opened up the scoring on a 12th minute penalty kick. Allie Long sent the ball ahead to Morgan, who may have been offsides. Spirit defender Domenica Hodak and Morgan got tangled up just inside the box, resulting in a foul against Hodak. Morgan lined up to take the penalty for the Thorns and Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris guessed wrong, diving right as Morgan’s shot flew in.
“Ashlyn is one of the best goalkeepers in the world and Sinclair asked me if I wanted to take it, I thought about it for a second and if she knew where I was going to go and was like, ‘yeah, I want to take it,’” Morgan said. “Ashlyn is a good friend of mine, I don’t think she quite knows where I’m going.”
Harris argued with the referee before and after the penalty kick, presumably about the placement of the foul. Harris’ protests earned her a yellow card.
Washington’s attack struggled in early goings and the team managed only two shots in the first half. Once again, the Spirit starting forwards hesitated to shoot resulting in lost offensive opportunities. Caroline Miller, who got the start in place of Tiffany McCarty, got a breakaway in the 36th minute. Rather than shoot or pass the ball to Ochs, who was open on the left flank, Miller held the ball too long and a Thorns defender knocked it away.
Jorden admitted his forwards struggled.
“I think that whether it’s pulling the trigger or maybe making quicker runs, that’s what we’ve been talking about,” he said. “(We need to) try to get in behind a little quicker and be a little more dangerous.”
Things heated up between the two sides in the 43rd minute when Hodak fouled Morgan again. Morgan said a few choice words to Hodak and when play resumed Morgan was quickly fouled once more, this time by Diana Matheson. The two exchanged words and were separated by the referees, but no cards were issued.
Morgan admitted after foul by Matheson she was “a little bit fed up,” adding that she “can get a little feisty” at times. The teams toned it down a bit in the second half and Morgan felt that both teams recognized that they “don’t get paid to go out there and fight but go out there and play so that’s what we needed to do.”
Washington subbed usual sMcCarty on for Ingrid Wells to start the second half and McCarty made an almost instant impact on her side. In the 49th minute, McCarty sprang forward and battled three defenders to get a shot off. Her effort was blocked by keeper Karina LeBlanc. In the 50th minute, McCarty again tested LeBlanc, who made the stop despite McCarty being belatedly called offsides.
In the following minute, Nikki Washington extended the Thorns lead off a bad pass from Spirit defender Ali Krieger. Washington’s shot was a beauty. She took it just outside the penalty box and the ball bent around Harris, bounced off the post and into the net.
Christine Sinclair nearly added to Portland’s cause in the 66th minute with a long-range shot that had to be tipped over the crossbar by Harris.
In the late stages of the match the Spirit put Portland under significant pressure. In the 84th minute, Miller, despite pressure from three Thorns defenders, passed the ball the Lori Lindsey. Unfortunately for the Spirit, Lindsey’s shot went wide right. Less than a minute later, LeBlanc collected a potentially dangerous cross intended for Jasmyne Spencer.
For the third time in as many games, Matheson provided the only offense for the Spirit. In the 86th minute, Matheson was fouled in the box by Jazmyne Avant. Matheson took the penalty kick and calmly aimed her shot at the center of the net as LeBlanc drove right.
LeBlanc called penalty kicks an “interesting mind game” explaining that although she knew Matheson’s tendencies, Matheson was aware of that very fact. Matheson won the mind game as LeBlanc admitted, “I think D didn’t even pay attention to me.” Matheson’s strike wasn’t enough and the heavily favored Thorns won the match 2-1.
“I’m tired of talking about how young we are but that’s the reality. You look at Portland and they have experienced veteran players and we got 5 or 6 rookies right out of the gates and we’re busting our asses and doing a great job but we still got to keep working and learn more about each other because the fight’s there,” Jorden stated after the game about his team’s losing efforts.
Washington (0-2-2) lost its second straight game, and remains winless in the early going this season. The Spirit host Boston next Saturday Portland (3-0-1) remained unbeaten at the top of the NWSL table through four weeks of play and return to Chicago to face the Red Stars next Sunday.
Thorns defense: With the attacking duo of Morgan and Sinclair a lot of attention, little attention has been paid to the Thorns’ defense. Portland’s defense played superbly last night aside from the costly foul committed by Avant that led to the penalty kick. Every time a Spirit player brought a ball within the final third, two or three Thorn defenders quickly swarmed and stifled the Spirit attack.
Matheson is magnificent: Matheson now accounts for 75 percent of the Spirit’s offensive production and when she’s not scoring, she’s the catalyst for much of the Spirit offense. Although other players have more of an impact on a single game, Matheson arguably more of an impact on her team than any other field player thus far in the league.
Spirit attacking woes continue: After four games the Spirit forwards have still tallied only one goal. Starting Miller in place of McCarty didn’t resolve the issue for Jorden and leaves questions as to who will start against Boston. Both McCarty and Miller have been more impressive off the bench than when they start. Meanwhile, Stephanie Ochs is spending too much time defending. Perhaps if the Spirit can find a way to free her up to focus her energies on offense, she can help the team score goals.