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Thorns get one step closer to playoffs with 4-0 shutout of Spirit

The Portland Thorns earned three more points on their way to the 2017 NWSL Playoffs, defeating the Washington Spirit, 4-0. Christine Sinclair scored a brace on the day, with Nadia Nadim and Emily Sonnett adding singles. With the win, the Thorns are now in position to clinch a playoff berth if Sky Blue does not win against FC Kansas City tomorrow night.

Unsurprisingly, the Thorns were the dominant team for all but the opening minutes of the match. The Spirit were playing their third game in a week, had to travel cross-country for the game, and are far from full-strength as Estelle Johnson and Francisca Ordega were added to their extensive injury list following Wednesday night’s home loss to the North Carolina Courage, and goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé was once again out with an excused absence. They also entered the match on a three-game losing streak, and their 2-1 loss to Chicago last weekend eliminated them from the playoff race. 

In contrast, the Thorns had no midweek match, were playing at home and, while Mark Parsons is also struggling with his roster, he’s having the opposite problem. The Thorns currently have too much depth on their bench, especially in the midfield, and as a result, Allie Long has been all but relegated to the bench. However, Long returned to the XI today as the result of Hayley Raso’s suspension for yellow card accumulation, although she was pushed up into Raso’s spot up top instead of her more natural role in the midfield. 

In Labbé’s absence, DiDi Haracic returned between the pipes for the Spirit, and it was an error on her part that set up the first Thorns goal. Portland was awarded a penalty when Long was tripped up inside the area by the keeper, whose outstretched leg sent Long sprawling. Haracic seemed to disagree with the ref’s call and was eventually shown a yellow card for dissent. Nadia Nadim took the spot kick and placed it on target, only to have Haracic make the stop. However, the keeper was unable to collect, and the ball generously deflected right to Nadim, who easily slotted the rebound home for the Thorns opening goal. Sinclair struck just three minutes later when she cheekily played the ball to herself and then one-timed a shot past Haracic to double the Thorns’ lead.

Portland went up three goals to nil in the 40th minute after Haracic got a glove on Nadim’s long-range strike to send it out for a Thorns corner kick. Meghan Klingenberg took the corner, sending in textbook service to Emily Sonnett, who jumped well over the crowd to redirect the ball on target with a flick of her head. Tori Huster valiantly tried to clear the ball off the line but was unsuccessful, crashing into the net as the ball rolled over the goal line. The goal is the center back’s third of the year.

The first half wasn’t completely one-sided though, and the Spirit created a couple of opportunities themselves. The best one came in the 19th minute when Mallory Pugh connected with Estefania Banini, who then played the ball to Huster. Huster sent in a rocket from at least 30 yards out, but Thorns netminder Adrianna Franch was equal to the task, making a brilliant diving save. Franch came up big again just before the end of first-half regulation time to deny a shot by Pugh. The teen was seen favoring her hip following the shot and, along with Shelina Zadorsky, was subbed off at the half.

Gabarra was forced to use his third and final sub within the opening 10 minutes of the second half after Banini was hurt during a challenge on Lindsey Horan. Banini pulled the midfielder down from behind, and the pair stayed down on the pitch, Horan holding her knee and Banini her thigh. There was no whistle, though, as Allie Long then maneuvered the ball around a sprawling Haracic and walked the ball into goal, but the goal was negated by the offside flag. After the play Banini exited the field holding her right hamstring on an already heavily-wrapped leg.

Although it was as a sweltering hot day in Portland—temperatures were reportedly 104 degrees at kickoff—and the Thorns were leading by three, they didn’t take their foot off the gas. They continued to test Haracic, and Long had a second goal called back for being offside. The final goal of the match came in the 81st minute when Sinclair got her second off a corner kick once again sent in by Klingenberg. Long got her head on the service, but she sent the header off the post and back into play. Sinclair got to the rebound first and easily knocked it in to make it 4-0, Portland.

The Thorns will now be eagerly awaiting tomorrow’s Sky Blue result to find out if they’ll be joining the Courage in the playoffs. Next up for them is a return trip to Boston, where they’ll take on the ninth-place Breakers on Sunday, September 10. The Spirit will also return to the road, making the trip to New Jersey for the second time to close out their 2017 series against Sky Blue. Those two will also take the field on the 10th.

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