PORTLAND, Ore. – While Thorns FC’s crowd again made news, drawing 11,055 to a mid-week match at JELD-WEN Field, it was a little-known substitute that stole the headlines late in Portland, knocking another team from the NWSL’s ranks of the unbeaten. With an 80th minute strike from well beyond the arc, substitute Taylor Lytle turned on a match defined by low-percentage chances, with Sky Blue FC taking three points from Portland after a 1-0 win.
“It doesn’t get much better than that, in terms of placement,” Portland head coach Cindy Parlow Cone said, reacting to Lytle’s game-winner. “Great finish by them, and they played tough defensively. They’re a tough block to break down.”
“I’m not surprised that they put a great game together and were able to eek out a win.”
The match’s goal came after a late, seemingly innocuous whistle, a foul 15 yards inside Portland’s half that produced a yellow card for Portland’s Christine Sinclair. Moments after the restart, Lytle, who had come on for Kendall Johnson, laced a ball toward Karina LeBlanc’s goal, giving the Canadian international little chance to prevent Portland’s first loss of the season.
“They took an incredible shot,” Thorns defender Rachel Buehler explained, asked to describe Lytle’s goal. “It’s one of those goals that was an amazing goal on their part. That finish was unbelievable. There’s not much you can do about it … it was a very good shot on her part.”
As the shot went into the right side of Portland’s goal, Sky Blue all but sealed a match defined by its lack of chances. The Thorns high-profile attack were unable to produce any meaningful opportunities for Alex Morgan or Sinclair, while the Thorns defense failed to present Sky Blue the openings that defined their weekend victory against Seattle Reign FC.
But in a battle between the league’s top two teams, Sky Blue didn’t need gifts. Instead, they made their own luck. With Kelley O’Hara’s start at left back pushing University of Portland defender Kendall Johnson into midfield, head coach Jim Gabarra swapped off the former Pilot off in favor of Lytle less than two minutes before she scored. While the match seemed destined to end 0-0, the former Texas Tech Red Raider struck out of nowhere, her long distance strike vaulting her team to the top of the league’s standings.
“They played a very good tactical game,” Buehler said, asked to diagnose how Sky Blue handed Portland their first loss of the season. “They dropped in. They played a very smart defensive game. At times, you have to meticulously get through that, and sometimes that takes away your urgency a little because it’s frustrating. It’s hard to break through that block they were defending in.”
Sky Blue came into the night three points behind league-leading Portland, their 10 points in five games meaning a win at JELD-WEN would move the New Jersey-based club into a tie for first place. Portland, on the other hand, carried an unbeaten record and a four-match winning streak into Thursday’s game, a potential win over Sky Blue allowing Cone’s team to move six points clear before the sixth weekend of league play.
Through 45 minutes, there was little to distinguish the two sides. Portland had been the more proactive side, but Sky Blue amassed edges in shots (13-11, at full time) and shots on goal, edges only partially mitigated by Thorns’ ambition moving toward goal. While Portland may have been more aggressive trying to create chances, Sky Blue were more than holding their own on the road against the league leaders, keeping the Thorns from stressing goalkeeper Brittany Cameron.
“I’m happy with the number of chances we’re creating,” Cone said, asked about the team’s attack. “I’m not happy with the number for shots we’re getting on frame.”
Unable to gain a greater hold on the match after halftime, Portland eventually succumbed to a Sky Blue approach that patiently waited for their chance. With Lytle’s first goal of her NWSL career, that chance finally fell to her, vaulting the former WPS champions to the top of their new league’s table.