The Portland Thorns' first game in the National Women's Soccer League Fall Series was worth the wait.
A 3-0 win over Utah Royals FC featured a masterful goal from Simone Charley, instant impact from Sophia Smith and a whole lot of good work from the home side in a match played Sunday, Sept. 20, without fans at Providence Park.
Charley scored the first-half goal, Smith made it 2-0 almost instantly after entering in the second half and Lindsey Horan added an opportunistic goal.
The Thorns didn't at all look like a team that had to train indoors for eight of the nine days leading up to the match, nor did they resemble a team that was playing its first competitive match in two months.
Coach Mark Parsons said he was happy his team performed well and gave its fans a few hours of enjoyment during what has been a challenging time for everyone.
"Just proud of the way that individuals and collectively they've been able to grow stronger and stronger together, and put the right things in perspective, and know that we were playing at home for the first time this year for reasons bigger than soccer," Parsons said. "The icing on the cake is a great performance and three goals and a clean sheet."
Smith, the No. 1 pick in the NWSL Draft out of Stanford, had waited months for her pro debut because of a nagging injury. She entered the game Sunday wearing a big smile in the 69th minute, a smile that grew bigger when she scored her first professional goal with her head in the 72nd minute.
"Today, to get her on the pitch was special," Parsons said. "Now we get to build. She's going to be a fun player. We're excited to have her in Portland."
Smith's header came from near the penalty spot, finishing a Meghan Klingenberg cross.
Smith was thrilled to finally get on the field after months of feeling close to getting healthy, but not quite getting there. She was with Portland for the NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah but wasn't quite ready to see action.
"It was definitely a frustrating process," Smith said. "But it came with a lot of rewards and I feel really good about where I'm at now. The positive, aside from a good team win, is I feel good and I feel healthy."
Horan, with fellow midfielders Angela Salem, Rocky Rodriguez and Christine Sinclair, made sure Portland controlled the flow of the game. She scored an opportunistic goal in the 81st minute by blocking a clearing kick from goalkeeper Abby Smith.
Charley's goal was a thing of beauty. Collecting a long forward ball from Horan, she moved past Michelle Maemone and Kate Del Fava with some slick dribbling and slotted a left-footed shot low inside the right post.
"There are parts of her game that are such strong qualities, that make her very unique," Parsons said about Charley. "We saw today her dribbling ability and ability to cut people is a massive quality of hers. She's continued to improve on the defensive side."
He said the next challenge for Charley is to show her ability more consistently.
Such development is really what these four Fall Series matches are about for the Thorns.
Sunday was a fun step forward, especially on the attacking side after goals were so difficult to come by back in July during the Challenge Cup.
Parsons emphasized that his team's attack was better than the results showed during the summer tournament, adding that Sunday's three goals don't mean it's perfect.
"Proud that we've taken a forward step, but we've got many, many more steps ahead with the attacking side of the game," he said.
The excitement about the young players overshadowed some dominant play from veterans, including Salem in midfield and left back Klingenberg.
Klingenberg created six of Portland's 18 scoring chances and also led the team in passes (70) and in tackles (five).
Utah, which has several players out on loan and an interim coach, Amy LePeilbet, after Craig Harrington was placed on a leave of absence by the club, was credited with 11 scoring chances. Portland goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom had four saves, with the Royals' best chance coming on an Arielle Ship shot in the 67th minute that she smothered.
Next for the Thorns in the four-game Fall series is a 7 p.m. Sept. 30 game against OL Reign at Providence Park, a match rescheduled because of the wildfire smoke.
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