In preseason, Portland Thorns FC looked like a lock to make the inaugural National Women’s Soccer League final. With Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair up top, Becky Edwards in the midfield, Tobin Heath joining mid-season and Rachel Buehler in the back, the deck was stacked.
But coach Cindy Parlow Cone cautioned everyone that games weren’t won on paper.
And by mid-May, just over a month into the season, the evidence supported her claim.
Portland dropped a home result at JELD-WEN Field, assumed – too much so, it was clear – to be a fortress for them. Sky Blue FC came out with a 1-0 win on May 16, putting the New Jersey side atop the table for a stretch that would last two months.
The Thorns, meanwhile, went on struggling to find an identity well into mid-season. The mid-July arrival of Heath tightened up a midfield that previously never really connected with world-class strike partnership of Morgan and Sinclair. But Edwards went down for the season and an otherwise sound defense began to show signs of cracking late in the grueling season, in which multiple games per week were the norm.
A 3-3 home draw with Chicago on July 28 after blowing a late 3-1 lead. A 3-2 home loss to Kansas City on August 4 and a 2-1 road loss to the Boston Breakers on August 7, when the Thorns lost Alex Morgan to a sprained left MCL. That all led to adversity – certainly on the field, but seemingly in the locker room as well, alluded to by rookie forward Danielle Foxhoven after that Kansas City loss.
Other players have since more vaguely alluded to adversity, and on Tuesday’s national conference call, Cone said those tough times earlier in the season are exactly what helped the Thorns erase a 2-0 deficit inside 30 minutes to prevail over that very Kansas City team, winning 3-2 in extra time on the road last Saturday.
“The team could have thrown the towel in and been like, ‘oh, we’re done.’ But they didn’t,” Cone said. “They got together, they stood up, they looked up, they looked at each other and they wanted to fight. And they did. They fought the entire game and I thought just played their hearts out. If we hadn’t gone through the adversity we had gone through earlier in the season, I don’t know if we would have been able to pull out the win in the way that we did.”
The Thorns now carry that experience into the NWSL Championship, and while they have dropped some results they shouldn’t have this season, the Thorns are never really out of any game they play.
And the Flash are on notice of that trend after thoroughly dominating Sky Blue FC in their semifinal but not getting a second, clinching goal until second half stoppage time. Especially with Sinclair and (likely) Morgan on Portland’s front line.
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