PISCATAWAY, N.J. — With their season hanging in the balance, Portland Thorns FC did just about everything in the final 45 minutes against Sky Blue FC at Yurcak Field on Saturday — except score.
Nadia Nadim’s 19th-minute goal held up to lift Sky Blue to a 1-0 win in front of a stadium-record of 5,547 fans.
Thorns forward Alex Morgan played in her first NWSL match since the season-opener on April 11, and she stood over the ball in the 89th minute with a chance to equalize from the penalty spot.
Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Brittany Cameron took down Christine Sinclair in the box, appearing to injure Sinclair’s ankle. Morgan, who entered the match in the 60th minute, stepped up for the penalty kick and saw her initial shot to Cameron’s right saved. The rebound came right back to Morgan, but Cameron — laying on her back — turned and stretched to get a fingertip to Morgan’s second effort and keep the ball out of the goal, pushing it across the goal line.
The sequence capped off a frustrating night for Portland.
“I thought second half we were very good,” Thorns coach Paul Riley said. “We knocked the ball around, created probably a good seven, eight chances, but sometimes your name is not on the result and I don’t think our name was on the result tonight.”
Sinclair left the game with an apparent left ankle injury. She had ice on her ankle after the match.
“I think it’s a bad injury and I think she knows it is too,” Riley said of Sinclair. “She said she heard a pop. Something to do with the ankle, I don’t know what. And Sinc’s not a whiner, whatsoever, so I think I have a feeling it’s a bad injury, but fingers crossed it’s not.”
Despite the victory, Sky Blue is eliminated from playoff contention due to FC Kansas City’s 3-0 win over the Boston Breakers, a result which also puts Portland’s turbulent season on the brink of ending. Portland — now 6 pts. behind Kansas City, Chicago and Boston — can finish no better than 4th. Kansas City owns the tiebreaker against Portland, while the Thorns own the head-to-head tiebreaker against Chicago. Portland and Washington play next week to decide the season series.
Nadim scored the game’s only goal on a tap-in effort following a defensive lapse by Portland. Sam Kerr served a cross through the goal area and Thorns defender Alyssa Kleiner — signed to a professional contract on Friday — shielded the ball facing her own goal, seemingly unaware of Kelley O’Hara closing ground on her. O’Hara picked off the ball and laid it back to Nadim, who had an open net at which to shoot.
Riley said he went with Kleiner because he thought she had the pace to keep with Sky Blue. Riley also said that a pending announcement kept Rachel Van Hollebeke, who has 113 caps with the U.S., on the bench.
Sky Blue’s goal was the result of a series of opportunities in the opening 20 minutes. O’Hara found space in behind Portland’s defense twice in under 60 seconds in the in 13th and 14th minutes, scuffing her first shot and earning a corner kick on the second shot.
Kerr and O’Hara wreaked havoc on the wings throughout the first half, switching sides midway through it. Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra chose to sit three and four attackers on Portland’s unorthodox three-back defense, which applied constant pressure and provided the home team with space on the flanks.
“We need to do a better job on our counter and putting our chances away,” Gabarra said. “I think we had the same number of chances in the first half that we didn’t score. We’re fortunate that it didn’t bite us like it had earlier in the year.”
In need of a victory to keep realistic playoff hopes alive, the Thorns were largely uncreative in the first half, mustering only a tame effort from Jodie Taylor in the 29th minute.
Portland hit the woodwork twice late in the second half as Riley pushed numbers forward, ending the match with only two natural defenders on the field.
Sinclair was twice denied in the 67th minute. Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Brittany Cameron made a big save 1-v-1 with Sinclair, who collected the rebound and agonizingly put the ball off the crossbar from 15 yards out. Tobin Heath also hit the crossbar in the 80th minute.
Thorns goalkeeper Nadine Angerer played in her first match since July 26, making a pair of 1-v-1 saves to keep the Thorns in the match late.
“I just wish we played with the urgency (of the) second half as the first half,” Riley said.
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