Victory over North Carolina Courage shows what can happen when Portland gets 'on the front foot'

COURTESY: JODY LIM/ASIAN REPORTER - Hayley Raso (right) of the Portland Thorns fights Abby Erceg of the North Carolina Courage for the ball at Providence Park.Make no mistake, Saturday's win for the Thorns over league-leading North Carolina was significant.

Oh, it didn't suddenly make Portland a front runner. This National Women's Soccer League season is the most competitive yet, and at 6-4-4 the Thorns are fourth with 10 games remaining.

But by starting a three-date homestand beating the Courage, the Thorns breathed some life into the notion they can compete for the title.

Truth is, if either Ashley Hatch or McCall Zerboni had put close-range headers on target for the Courage, the Thorns' postmatch mood would have been different.

That, of course, often is true in soccer. And the win, while important in the standings, is even more important for the Thorns' psyche.

If the result sent a message to the league not to forget about Portland, the lesson was clearer for the Thorns.

As coach Mark Parsons put it, "The message from this moment is, every time we put in the work and the energy and we get on the front foot, good things happen."

A prime example was Hayley Raso. The Australian forward was asked to do more running against the Courage. Raso and rookie Tyler Lussi were tasked with keeping pressure on North Carolina defenders.

"We had a new formation, and it was to press North Carolina. Just really high press and get everyone up there and get North Carolina on the back foot," Raso said. "I think we did that. They didn't have time, they didn't have space to play out."

Parsons praised his players for adapting to the game plan — and for rising to the occasion while missing several valuable teammates. Amandine Henry, Nadia Nadim and Dagny Brynjarsdottir are away for the European championships. Mana Shim (concussion) joined Tobin Heath and Meg Morris on the injury list.

Raso, Parson's noted, has surprised. While opponents have accounted for her better speed in recent weeks, both of her goals have come from unlikely places.

Against the Courage, the 5-4 Raso was able to meet a cross off the right foot of Meghan Klingenberg and snap a header with enough zip that goalkeeper Kate Rowland could only get a piece of it.

Klingenberg, who turned into a left winger instead of a defender whenever the Thorns were on the attack against North Carolina, joked that she sent her cross-seeking fellow "shorty" Raso. In truth, after a hustling Lindsey Horan chased down a miss hit clearing attempt and got the ball to her, Klingenberg simply wanted to deliver a cross that would cause some mayhem in front of goal.

And Raso — who had not before scored with her head as a pro — made a quick run to get in front of her defender.

"When the ball is coming in, wherever it's coming, when I'm in front of goal I'm going to put anything on it," Raso said. "It came at my head, and I went for it."

If the Thorns are going to have a shot at reaching their championship goals in 2017, such whatever-it-takes efforts will be critical. Klingenberg says collective effort is the secret, explaining that earlier this season the Thorns resorted to individual play when games were not going according to plan.

"Now we're pulling in all the same direction," she says. "And I think that's a little bit scary for other teams."

Having dispatched of the top team in the NWSL, Portland now will play host to the last-place Washington Spirit at 7 p.m. Saturday.

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