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Thorns still in hunt for possible playoff home-field advantage

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Christine Sinclair of the Portland Thorns looks to the referee for a foul call in a recent home match against FC Kansas City.After a season of watching shots bang off the post and the crossbar, or having goalkeepers make fantastic saves, Portland Thorns FC forward Christine Sinclair finally had the flood gates open for her.

Heading into last Sunday’s match, Sinclair had scored four goals this season. Against the Boston Breakers, though, Sinclair completed the first hat trick in club history.

“Individually, it’s nice,” the 31-year-old Sinclair said. “I got to see shots go into the net that I think earlier in the season would have hit the post and bounced out.”

Thorns coach Paul Riley was ecstatic to see his star striker finally find her rhythm.

“It’s been a frustrating season, at times for her,” Riley said. “But you can’t take away from the way she’s played, her work ethic. She ran eight miles (in a game) in Chicago on Thursday night. To turn that around two or three days later, at that age, and come and play like that (against the Breakers) was brilliant for us.

“I didn’t really want to take her off (the field) because I thought she probably would have got a couple more (goals), but looking ahead to Washington (Spirit), we’re going to need her in Washington (on Wednesday, July 23). It’s a huge game for us.

“It’s nice for ‘Sinc,’ too, because she’s gone through a lot of posts and kicks off the line and headers off the line and just unfortunate instances or great goalkeeping. (Against Boston), she got her just rewards for her hard work.”

• The Thorns have scored 14 goals in their last three matches. Both Riley and the players say a huge part of that is because of midfielder Veronica Boquete.

“We have Vero, who’s one of the best, if not the best attacking midfielder in the women’s game today,” Portland striker Alex Morgan said.

Riley said the Thorns are learning how to play around their 27-year-old Spaniard.

“All the dictation comes from Vero,” Riley said. “She’s the one that holds the ball up. She twists and turns, she changes direction. Everybody thinks she’s going that way and then she’s the other way.

“Our team’s got used to that now. They don’t go running in the direction Vero’s running in. They run almost in the opposite direction, knowing she’s going to turn out and maybe look for a ball.

“She can beat you on the dribble. She can beat you with a pass.”

• The Thorns are still not playing at full strength. Midfielder Tobin Heath did not play against the Boston Breakers on Sunday. She suffered a knee injury during the first five minutes of Portland’s July 17 match against the Chicago Red Stars.

On the injury report, she was listed as doubtful with a right knee sprain.

“Tobin is 10 days to two weeks away,” Riley said. “We need her, we want her. Having that extra piece in the midfield helps. We need Tobin, she’s a huge piece for us. It’s a big blow, there’s no question.”

• Portland (8-6-5, 29 points) entered Wednesday’s match against the Spirit in third place in the National Women’s Soccer League, with five matches remaining.

The top four finishers will make the playoffs, with the top two seeds hosting matches.

The Seattle Reign (43 points) are in first place. FC Kansas City (34 points) is catchable, but Portland would have to do a lot of winning in a hurry. The Red Stars (27 points) and the Spirit (27 points) were nipping at Portland’s heels as they try to keep the defending NWSL champs from the postseason.

“We still want to try to get a home game,” Riley said. “For those (Thorns) fans, not to get a home game is almost sacrilege. We’ll just keep working our tails off and hopefully give ourselves a chance.

“I think we’ll have to go the rest of the way winning for us to get that (second) spot, but we’ll keep plugging away.

“Our goal difference is certainly helped with the last couple of games at home, so if we can keep doing that and keep plugging away ...”

• As far as the Thorns making the playoffs and possibly hosting a match, Morgan was willing to say what everyone has been thinking: With Portland’s fan support, almost everyone is rooting for the Thorns to get a home playoff match.

“We do want to host a game for our fans, and every other team in this league wants us to host a game because they want to play in front of these fans,” Morgan said. “They want to play in front of this atmosphere. That puts a lot of pressure on us, but I think that it’s finally falling together the right way, and you can see that we’re now starting to play the best soccer that we can play.”

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