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Lauletta: Is the Rob Gale effect real?

Photo Copyright Jaime Valdez for USA TODAY Sports

Was it as simple as a coaching change? To say the circumstances surrounding the Portland Thorns‘ coaching change were odd would be an understatement. The five matches since Rob Gale became interim coach while his predecessor, Mike Norris, was sent to the front office, have shut down most of the skeptics. Saturday night’s fifth consecutive win established a club record and pushed the disastrous, 0-3-1 start further into the rearview mirror. The cherry on top was setting the mark against their archrival Reign. The 4-0 score made it the Thorns’ most lopsided victory in the series. In the process, the Thorns also denied Reign coach Laura Harvey her milestone 100th regular season win.

“Especially to do it at home and against Seattle was really great,” Payton Linnehan said after potting the final goal deep in stoppage time.

The transition once Gale took over was almost immediate—literally. It was April 20 against the Houston Dash and Christine Sinclair scored in the sixth minute. In the three subsequent matches, the Thorns led in the sixth, second, and fourth minutes respectively, starting matches with an energy that matched Gale’s sideline demeanor. They did have to wait longer against the Reign, opening the scoring through Olivia Moultrie in the 42nd minute.

“Rob has been great,” Linnehan said.

Kelli Hubly, whose acrobatic goal line clearance allowed the Thorns to keep their 1-0 halftime lead, echoed Linnehan.

“Rob’s doing a great job,” Hubly said. “Each week going into these games he’s reminding us ‘you can make history.’ Winning four goals in a row and (reminding us) there was no five. Just knowing that we’re also setting history together is really important in season. You always remember winning championships as (making) history, but in a season, you kind of need these little milestones to keep you pushing. And I think it’s really cool. We’re all on the same page and all bought in. And Rob’s doing such a great job of bringing us together and getting the full potential out of us.”

Gale, of course, deflected credit back to the players, even as he extended his own National Women’s Soccer League record by winning his fifth straight match at the top of his career.

“What a privilege it is to work with them, to have role models like those guys,” he said. “They deserve all the credit. They rally together. They’re fighting for each other.”

May 11, 2024; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Thorns FC forward Sophia Smith (9) controls the ball during the second half against Seattle Reign FC at Providence Park. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

One player who stands out pretty much any time she takes the field is Sophia Smith. At 23, the former No. 1 overall pick already has a Golden Boot on her resume plus MVP honors from both the regular season and NWSL Championship in 2022. Against the Reign, the penalty she converted was her eighth goal of the season and she remains on pace to become the first 20-goal scorer in league history. But against the Reign, her story was the distribution. Smith assisted on goals to Moultrie, Hina Sugita, and Linnehan to become only the sixth player in league history to dole out three assists in the same match. She has six helpers this season.

“Take statistics out of it, which is clear, what a player,” Gale said. “She’s been fantastic for me. She’s done everything we’ve asked of her. Sometimes, on the national team, she gets put out on the wing and obviously she loves being the nine, but she puts in a shift. I think people don’t realize how much effort she’s put in on the defensive side over the last few weeks. Obviously, she’s getting the reward going the other way. Soph is leading the charge for us in every department.”

The Thorns’ fast starts under Gale have not necessarily led to sterling, 90-minute efforts. They squandered a 2-0 lead against Bay FC and prevailed when Smith’s goal evaded Lysianne Proulx who seemed in position to make the save. Bay benched Proulx after that match. Then, against the Spirit, they held on for dear life late and may have been in trouble if not for one clutch Shelby Hogan save and a penalty that turned into a free kick following a VAR review.

Gale said he knew the early stages against the Thorns were cagey, and they were. This time the Thorns wore down their opponents. After Hogan made a leaping save on Jess Fishlock and Hubly cleared the rebound off the line, the Reign rarely had an answer going forward thereafter.

“Some of the passing out of the back tonight was outstanding when we bypassed the pressure,” Gale said.

With five straight wins, the league record of seven is now in sight. Wins against the Dash in Houston on Friday and the Pride in Orlando the following Friday will tie the mark, currently held by the Reign.

“At this point there’s nothing that’s going to stop this team but ourselves,” Linnehan said.


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Around the league

Louisville 1, Spirit 2: 

The Spirit scored in the fifth minute when rookie sensation Croix Bethune’s shot beat Katie Lund through traffic and Louisville never seemed to fully recover despite the return of Savannah DeMelo in midfield. DeMelo scored the Racing goal with a stunning, direct free kick but also misfired on a penalty that Aubrey Kingsbury was able to save with relative ease. Following the missed penalty, the Spirit doubled the lead on an own goal. Bethune played Ouleymata Sarr through and Lund made a cat-like, kick save on it. Sarr got the rebound and sent in a hopeful cross that Lauren Milliet inadvertently knocked in.

Racing have now lost two games in a row and despite not losing in their first six, find themselves under .500 (1-2-5, 8 pts) and 11th on the table. The Spirit sit third.

Pride 1, Bay 0: 

For the first time as a starter, Barbra Banda didn’t score but she drew another penalty, converted by Adriana, and the Pride stifled the Bay FC attack in a 1-0 win to move to the brink of history. The Pride have now on six straight matches, one short of the league record set by Seattle Reign FC a decade ago. They will have an opportunity to match the mark when they travel to Seattle on Sunday.

Red Stars 3, Royals 1: 

The Red Stars scored two goals in six minutes midway through the first half but the win was tempered a bit by an injury to goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. Mallory Swanson not only assisted on the opener to Jenna Bike but it was her pressure on Lauren Flynn which created a midfield turnover and after some interplay with Ally Schlegel, Swanson delivered a letter-perfect cross that found Bike beating the left side of the Royals defense. Bike returned the favor when she drew a penalty, conceded by Flynn, and Swanson converted it.

The Royals pulled one back when Cameron Tucker beat Naeher’s backup Mackenzie Wood with a perfectly placed, arching shot from distance. It served as a bit of a welcome-to-the-NWSL moment for Wood on her debut. Penelope Hocking restored the two-goal lead late. Jameese Joseph won the ball in midfield and threaded a ball to Hocking to beat three defenders. Hocking’s first touch got by keeper Mandy Haught’s aggressive challenge but there was not enough on it to reach the goal. But Hocking never broke stride and was first to it, tapping it in for the backbreakers.

The Royals remain without a point away from home.

Current 1, Courage 0: 

The Current remained perfect at CPKC Stadium and the Courage remained without a point on the road this season. The Current also showed they can grind out results as well as slugging them out. After outscoring opponents 20-11 during a 5-0-1 start, Vlatko Andonovski’s side has two draws and a win by scores of 1-1, 0-0, and 1-0.

The scoresheet shows Debinha scoring unassisted, but the key to the goal was a beautiful passing sequence between teenage midfielder Claire Hutton and Malawian striker Temwa Chawinga. It was Chawinga who got off the shot which was saved by Casey Murphy but Debinha’s follow-up run allowed her to finish the rebound. Adrianna Franch’s 44th shutout tied her with Alyssa Naeher for second all-time (Nicole Barnhart, 52) and was the first clean sheet kept in the new stadium.

Wave 1, Gotham 1:

Gotham returned to the site of their NWSL Championship triumph and earned their first result of any kind against the Wave. Ella Stevens’ first goal in a Gotham shirt put them on top but the ceiling this season remains a single goal as the offense continues to struggle. Hanna Lundqvist’s deadly finish of Savannah McCaskill’s corner kick tied the score. The Wave continued to be without the center back pairing of Naomi Girma and Abby Dahlkempe plus striker Alex Morgan.

Dash 1, Angel City 0: 

Paige Nielsen cleaned up a corner kick that landed in the box and sneaked a shot through traffic in the dying moments of stoppage time to give the Dash a 1-0 away win at Angel City. Nielsen was an original member of the Los Angeles-based club in 2022 and was traded to Houston ahead of the transfer window closing in April.

Both of the Dash wins this season have come on stoppage-time goals. In their 10 previous seasons, the team had only pulled that off one time, across all competitions.

Midweek madness

Laura Harvey’s first chance at the 100-win mark came Wednesday night against her old rival and boss Vlatko Andonovski. Andonovski’s Current carried much of the play but neither team could find the back of the net in a 0-0 draw. Andonovski is now 10-4-7 all-time against Harvey and that does not include his wins against her in the 2014 and 2015 NWSL Championships.

In San Diego, the Wave put Jaedyn Shaw in the attacking midfield spot while resting Savannah DeMelo and had a fairly easy time dispatching the Royals, 2-0. Shaw scored from the spot and had an assist for Makenzy Doniak.

In Houston, Lynn Williams scored early to give Gotham a 1-0 win over the Dash who remain without a regular-season home victory since June 3.

Free kicks

  • While Laura Harvey remained stuck on 99 career wins, Sam Staab extended her streak of consecutive starts to 99. The former Clemson standout will hit the century mark if she is in the XI on Sunday at Red Bull Arena against Gotham.
  • Speaking of Kurtz, the Courage season has been noted because Sean Nahas has chosen from the same 16 players in all nine games, even with a midweek fixture thrown in. Malia Berkely was injured last weekend and was unavailable in Kansas City. This weekend, Denise O’Sullivan received treatment on her right leg during the 2nd half and did not continue.
  • I’m told the Washington Spirit are set to announce an agreement to broadcast the club’s matches on ESPN 630 DC. The deal, which should be official this week, is expected to include a weekly Spirit segment on the Bram Weinstein show. Weinstein, the radio voice of the Washington Commanders, is expected to be part of the broadcast team.
  • Angel City are now 3-0-0 when taking less than 10 shots and 0-4-1 when hitting double digits. Meanwhile, their acquisition of Messiah Bright has been a lost one so far. Last year’s rookie sensation in Orlando played 13 minutes against the Dash, bringing her season total to 150 across six appearances. Bright has neither a goal nor an assist for Angel City.
  • Small gripe because NWSL schedule-making has been pretty solid the last few years, but it would be nice if the highest-profile matches on the calendar did not include large disparities in time off before the match. But that’s what happened when the Reign visited Portland after playing midweek while the Thorns were not only resting but then got to play the match at home. Yes, midweek matches will make for inequities with rest, but if you’re going to sell a match as the best rivalry the league has ever known, wouldn’t you want to give it every chance of being a great soccer game?
  • Speaking of the Cascadia rivalry, it still tops any other, but it’s kind of cool to think about it and realize that may not be the case in a few years. Gone are the days when Thorns-Reign was just about the only match on the schedule that would guarantee some buzz.
  • If the season ends and the Wave are in a favorable position, they may well look back on Wednesday’s win over the Royals and realize they earned three points with a center back pairing of Kennedy Wesley and Sierra Enge.
  • If the Pride are going to tie the Reign’s 2014 record of 7-straight wins, they will have to do it in Seattle this weekend. If they win and the Thorns win in Houston, the Thorns will then be in Orlando—with a chance to tie the record themselves.
  • Croix Bethune, highlighted here last week, showed patience beyond her years when holding the ball and waiting for Ouleymara Sarr to get herself back onside ahead of the Spirit’s second goal Friday night in Louisville. The rookie continues to pull strings in midfield like a veteran.
  • Rob Gale came to his postmatch press conference on Saturday accompanied by Director of Recruiting, Mike Smith. Before fielding questions, Gale spoke of the cancer diagnosis he received a year ago, only a few weeks into his tenure as a Thorns assistant coach. He also spoke of how Smith and his family took him in following a series of surgeries and helped nurse him back to health.
  • Finally, I try not to be too critical of NWSL broadcasts. Having been part of them in the past I know what it takes to pull one off and about the many challenges facing the crews both on and off air. But the utter lack of historical context to Wednesday’s Reign-Current match was mind-blowing. Not only was Laura Harvey’s pursuit of 100 wins rarely mentioned, but neither was her rekindled rivalry with Vlatko Andonovski. Sometimes it feels like some corners of NWSL have already forgotten about the early years.

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