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Slump or anomaly? Unpacking the Portland Thorns’ erratic few weeks

Primacy bias, Becky Sauerbrunn’s absence, and Sophia Smith’s dry spell: What the advanced data says about what is and what lies ahead in Portland

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing encapsulates the strangeness of the Portland Thorns’ recent run of form than the game that kicked it off.

Portland managed to rack up 11 goals and concede only two in their first four matches. While other teams were shaking off the cobwebs of the preseason, only the Thorns looked to be firing on all cylinders from minute one. Reigning National Women’s Soccer League MVP Sophia Smith had a hand in eight of those goals, scoring four and assisting four more in what was shaping up to be a repeat of her 2022 campaign. The gulf between Portland and the rest seemed insurmountable. 

But Becky Sauerbrunn had to subbed off with a foot injury in the second half against Louisville on April 22, and as the title holders welcomed Angel City to Providence Park a week later, her spot would be filled by veteran Emily Menges and Meaghan Nally. What unfurled was a game the Thorns should have easily won 2-0; instead, they had to rely on a ridiculous, last-gasp corner kick backheel from keeper Bella Bixby to just eke out a draw. 

Each goal came from a mistake. Bixby was far too easily beaten at her near post by Alyssa Thompson, who dropped a nasty deke on Kelli Hubly but didn’t convince with the power and placement of her shot. Natalie Kuikka — herself caught upfield during the Thompson counter, leaving Hubly to deal with Thompson 1-v-1 — blinked against Katie Johnson on a corner kick and headed in an own goal. Nally subbed in for Menges early in the second half, and twenty minutes later lost Julie Ertz at the far post on a corner kick, resulting in an easy header to the back of the net. Portland outplayed Angel City for the run of the game, but three mistakes created a desperate scoreline for Bixby’s at-the-death heroics. 

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