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Out of the Sky Blue, Thorns lose

When the final whistle sounded, all 11 players on the Portland Thorns FC dropped their heads. They paused for a long moment on the pitch, trying to take

in what had just happened. It seemed like so much more than a single loss. But perhaps it only seemed that way because since the season began, more than a month ago, the Thorns have not known what a loss felt like.

“It hurt,” goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc said. “We’re angry. We’re hurt. We’re upset. Especially at home, because we want to put on a good show for the fans and let them know we appreciate them.

"To lose at home … it stings that much more.”

The Thorns' unbeaten streak came to an end Thursday night at Jeld-Wen Field with a 1-0 loss to Sky Blue FC.

Portland, playing its second match in five days, looked sluggish on offense throughout the first half. Then, when the Thorns found their legs in the second half, they lacked the surgical precision to turn chances into goals.

On defense, Portland was solid for 80 minutes. While Sky Blue controlled much of the match, putting up 13 shots to the Thorns’ 11 shots, the Portland defense

seemed as if it would be able to handle anything that Sky Blue threw at them.

In the 80th minute, though, Sky Blue substitute midfielder Taylor Lytle scored, and the Thorns (4-1-1, 13 points) suffered the first loss in franchise history before an announced crowd of 11,055.

Portland lost sole custody of first place in the National

Women’s Soccer League. The Thorns share that spot with Sky Blue (4-1-1, 13 points), a team based in Piscataway, N.J.

After the initial feelings of the loss had settled on the Thorns, the club quickly turned its thoughts to the future and hopeful improvement.

“A loss is a loss, and that always hurts,” defender Rachel Buehler said. “In a way, having a loss like this, early in the season, there’s a lot of season left to play. It’s not a bad thing. A loss hurts. It’s terrible. But at the same time it’s motivation.”

Throughout the first half, Sky Blue challenged the Thorns' back line. Using a 4-3-3 formation, Sky Blue threw numbers up the pitch and created several scoring opportunities. The Portland back line played solidly, and when it faltered and allowed Sky Blue to take eight shots and put four balls on frame, LeBlanc was always in the right place to keep the score 0-0.

“We were organized defensively,” LeBlanc said. “They didn’t break us down too many times.”

Being forced to focus so much of their effort on defense, on top of being a step slow, the Thorns were not as dangerous on the attack as they had been in previous matches. While the Thorns finished the half with three shots and one shot on goal, nothing came from those opportunities.

The half ended the way it began: scoreless, both clubs still trying to find an edge to exploit.

As the second half began, the Thorns suddenly became much more dangerous.

Striker Alex Morgan began making extraordinary runs into the box. The service was always just a step behind or a step in front of Morgan, though.

“We had some moments (on offense) when we were doing well,” Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone said.

In an effort to awaken the offense, the Thorns put in striker Danielle Foxhoven for midfielder Mana Shim in the 63rd minute. By that point in the match, the Thorns were controlling almost all of the possession. Portland still could not seem to find the right potion to get the ball to one of its attackers with a good chance of putting it into the back of the net, though.

In the 69th minute, the Thorns had a golden opportunity to score. Foxhoven sent a cross into the six-yard box, perfectly setting up Morgan for a point-blank header. Morgan leaped up and connected with the ball. It went straight to Sky Blue goalkeeper Brittany Cameron, though.

In the 80th minute, Sky Blue dealt the Thorns the death blow. Lytle got the ball on the left side of the pitch and made a run into the 18-yard box. From the left side, Lytle fired to the top corner of the far post.

The shot went just beyond the diving LeBlanc’s reach, and Sky Blue had taken a 1-0 lead.

“They took an incredible shot,” Buehler said. “It was an amazing goal. That finish was unbelievable. There’s not much you can hope to do on that. It was a very good shot.”

After the goal, Sky Blue dropped almost every player back. The strategy worked.

The Thorns will have another quick turnaround, as they host the Washington Spirit at 2 p.m. Sunday. Cone said her team will focus on getting ready

physically on Friday and Saturday.

“We’ll just do the best we can to rest, recover, hydrate,” Cone said. “We’ll have a pool workout tomorrow, then back on the field Saturday for a light session and then the game on Sunday.”