Thorns top Red Stars 3-0
Three well-taken goals and a strong defensive performance kept the Portland Thorns ahead of the pack in the National Women's Soccer League.
Midge Purce scored two goals and Christine Sinclair one as the Thorns beat the Chicago Red Stars 3-0 on Sunday in front of 17,542 fans at Providence Park.
"Lethal going forward. Purpose. Quality. Numbers. I think devastating when we were on the charge," Thorns coach Mark Parsons said. "Loved what we did on the first half — one thing is to be creating chances, but (another is) to be finishing them."
The Thorns are 10-3-6 (36 points), five points up on second-place North Carolina, though the Courage have played two fewer games. Third-place Chicago has dropped three in a row and is 9-8-2 (29).
After their third consecutive win, the Thorns are nine points in front of fifth-place Reign FC. The top four teams make the NWSL playoffs, and the top two host semifinal matches. Portland is idle until Sept. 6 for an international break in which the United States will play friendlies against Portugal on Thursday in Philadelphia and Sept. 3 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Four U.S. national team players were on the field for each team on Sunday, with Chicago featuring starting U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, starting midfielder Julie Ertz and reserves Morgan Brian and Tierna Davidson.
Portland's Tobin Heath proved to be a handful on the left flank and was involved in both first-half goals. Heath assisted on Sinclair's opener in the 12th minute and whipped in a cross that led to the second goal.
Emily Sonnett teamed with Emily Menges, who drew special praise from Parsons, to help quiet Chicago's Sam Kerr, the NWSL leader with 13 goals. Lindsey Horan played as a deep midfielder, paired with Dagny Brynjarsdottir to control the space in front of Portland's defense and to look for passes to create transition attacks.
Portland goalkeeper Adrianna Franch made two routine saves but made three brave catches of crosses to deny Kerr scoring chances.
Chicago put 26 crosses into the penalty area in open play and took nine corner kicks, but the Thorns were first to all but a couple of those and limited the danger.
Parsons was particularly pleased with his team's defensive performance in the second half. The Red Stars pushed players forward but managed to take only five shots, and none were on target after halftime.
"That second-half defensive performance was one of our best in eliminating key players, in eliminating momentum, eliminating space. And when they did put the ball inside our 18-yard box, we were just outstanding — the same with (defending) set pieces."
Portland's first-half goals were both well-worked.
In the 12th minute, Sinclair was sent into the area with a nifty one-touch pass from Heath and calmly made Naeher commit before chipping in her ninth goal of the season.
The chance started with Heath collecting an errant pass at midfield to launch a Portland attack. Meghan Klingenberg provided the pass that Heath clipped into Sinclair's path.
Purce made the score 2-0 in the 24th minute, heading in the ball from five yards. Hayley Raso volleyed a perfectly-placed switching ball to the far post from Heath. Naeher got a piece of Raso's volley, but the ball deflected to the waiting Purce.
Purce scored her second goal in similar fashion in the 56th minute, essentially sealing the win after Chicago started the second half with a few offensive flurries.
Portland won possession in midfield and sent a quick ball forward for Raso to run onto. Raso dribbled into traffic and lost possession but was able to tap the ball back to Sinclair, who struck a first-time shot that Naeher tipped off the cross bar. Purce was first to the rebound and with the goal unguarded scored her eighth of the season.
Parsons praised Purse's growth, calling her performance outstanding, even just for the goals she scored.
Purce said she is still learning to play as a center forward after playing wide positions her entire life. She credited teammates Heath, Sinclair and Horan for helping her learn the striker spot. And Purce credited Parsons with preparing her to get into dangerous spaces on Sunday.
"He was saying I need to make sure I'm not ball-watching and doing things like that. He was literally showing me spaces I need to go to," Purce said. "I got tap-ins, and I got lucky and I was in the right place at the right time. But I think it was a big coaching point and (Parsons) helped me see the game in a different way in terms of being in the box."
Chicago has lost three in a row after a five-game win streak that lifted it to the top of the standings. Sunday was the fourth match in 15 days for the Red Stars, three of them on the road. Over the same period, Portland played three games, all at home.
Chicago coach Rory Dames said he counted Sunday as a win because none of his players got hurt.
"Not making excuses for why we lost, but our players are tired. The most important thing to get out of today was that nobody got hurt," Dames said. "The way we conceded the goals was disappointing, but it was a nothing game for us. In the big picture, for us it was about fitness, getting players through. I would have liked to make them work a little harder to get the goals they got."
The Thorns did get the ball to dangerous spaces, and in the process put some space between themselves and the teams chasing NWSL playoff spots.
Portland plays three of its five remaining regular-season games at home, but next is the 6:30 p.m. Sept. 6 game at Utah, followed quickly by a Sept. 11 showdown at home against North Carolina.
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