Sunday, Oct. 17: Thorns 1, Dash 0
Scoring: Lindsey Horan drove home a 14-yard shot off a pass from Morgan Weaver, who had made a run deep into the penalty area and taken a pass from Sophia Smith, sending the ball into space for Horan to run onto it. (1-0 Thorns, 43rd minute).
What it means: The Thorns have clinched the NWSL Shield as the team with the best regular-season record for the second time in club history (2016). Portland (13-6-4, 43 points) will be the No. 1 seed for the NWSL playoffs and host a semifinal match on Nov. 14. Houston (9-9-5, 32 points) is tied with North Carolina for the sixth playoff spot. The Dash finish the regular season against Washington on Oct. 30. The Courage are at Portland Oct. 30.
Storyline: Portland wins the NWSL Shield for the second time by recording its club-record 12th shutout of the season, which ties the league record. In the process, Mark Parsons became the winningest coach in NWSL history, passing banished Paul Riley with his 84th win. The Thorns also have claimed three trophies so far in 2021, having previously won the NWSL Challenge Cup and the International Champions Cup.
The Thorns dominated Sunday's first half, but the match was headed toward a scoreless first 45 until Horan blasted home her second goal of the season (and 25th as a Thorns player) in the 43rd minute. The opportunity arose from one of Sophia Smith's darting runs, this one down the left wing near the edge of the penalty area. Her cross found Weaver at the near post and, as two Dash players converged, Weaver was able to touch a pass back into open space for Horan to attack.
"If we go in at halftime without a goal, (we) would be so disappointed. I thought we were relentless in the first half. … This team had something else about them in the first half," Parsons said.
"We've won the shield before. We've won big games before. Other teams have won shields. No one's playing the soccer that we've played in and out of possession. This team has played some great football, but they have a spirit about them and mentality about them," Parsons said. "They just want more. You could see it today in every moment and how they enjoyed it after — this meant a lot to them, because they know that they've really sacrificed and really put each other first put this team first in that pursuit of getting better, getting better every moment."
Goalkeeper Bella Bixby posted her eighth shutout since taking over when Adrianna Franch went to the Olympics (and then was traded). Bixby made five saves and was a strong presence in the box as Houston took seven corner kicks and pumped in 21 open-play crosses.
Houston was the more assertive team as the second half moved along, a reflection perhaps of some Portland fatigue along with the Dash's desperation. But the only high-quality chance that came for the home team was in stoppage time when a flicked header by Kristie Mewis barely missed the path of Veronica Latsko at the back post.
Bixby on Houston's second-half push: "Houston will not give up, and you can bet that they're going to be pushing to the last second. So, just managing that wave after wave was getting a little bit tiring. But, I think that we stayed calm and just continued to do the right things. We weren't getting pulled out of position. Doing what we could as a defensive unit to manage their momentum was key in the last 15 minutes. And just being smart with the ball."
Said Horan: "Coming into this game, we just wanted to find our personality again and our Thorns' values and what the game means to us. And I think we found that tonight. We showed grit. We wanted this one so bad. We wanted to put ourselves in a great spot to end the season."
By putting to rest a four-match winless streak, the Thorns are now in a great spot. After an international break — during which Thorns players, including Christine Sinclair, Becky Sauerbrunn, Horan and Smith will be representing their county — the regular season ends with a chance to eliminate nemesis North Carolina from the playoffs, followed by a home semifinal game against one of the first-round survivors.
"It is such a special team. It's such a special group," Horan said. "It's never been like this before, and we never had this kind of team chemistry before on and off the field. So, you know, winning three trophies now, and hoping to get a chance to win the fourth, is incredible."
Up next: North Carolina at Portland, 7 p.m. Oct. 30.
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