Thorns Snag 2-1 Win Over Red Stars
Strong start, shaky finish spell the end of Chicago's six-game unbeaten streak.
Portland, OR -- The Chicago Red Stars entered Sunday's road matchup against the Portland Thorns riding a six-game unbeaten streak. After stumbling a bit in the second half, however, Chicago fell 2-1 to the suddenly-surging Thorns and now find themselves on a more dubious sort of streak: Only one win in their past five matches.
This is unfamiliar territory for the team that held the NWSL’s top spot for 10 consecutive weeks. After performing so well during the Women’s World Cup, despite missing a staggering eight squad members for the most of the tournament, Chicago has looked out of sync at times since reincorporating Christen Press, Julie Johnston, Melissa Tancredi, Lori Chalupny, and the rest of the internationals back into the team.
Still, things went well early on for Chicago. The Red Stars created numerous scoring opportunities, pressing high and peppering the Portland back line with deep breakout passes. Tancredi was particularly dangerous in the first half, narrowly missing a goal on a nearly-perfect chipped shot (setup beautifully by Julie Johnston). She came close again moments later, this time getting on the end of a perfect cross from Vanessa DiBernardo only to see her header gobbled up by Thorns goalkeeper Michelle Betos.
Alyssa Mautz finally broke through in the 29th minute with the most unlikely of goals. She appeared to be crossing the ball from the right wing, but it fooled everyone and arced its way over Betos and directly into the net. The play all started when Abby Erceg beat Portland’s Christine Sinclair in an aerial duel at midfield. The headed ball fell to Chalupny, and the Red Stars’ captain quickly touched it forward to a wide-open Mautz.
The chances kept coming for Chicago after the goal. Just a few minutes later, another great pass from Chalupny found Press slicing through the Thorns defense. She chipped a beautiful ball over a charging Betos, but it was cleared just short of the goalline by the backtracking Portland defense. In the 36th minute, Chalupny again found Press, who shook free of the Thorns defense and uncorked a powerful strike from the right that rang harmlessly off the far post.
After weathering so many missed opportunities by the Red Stars, the Thorns got back to level footing with a truly bizarre goal in the 38th minute. Tobin Heath worked free just outside the Red Stars' penalty area before putting a relatively harmless pass/shot in towards the Chicago goal. The ball was blocked by Erceg, who looked as though she was about to clear it when Red Stars keeper Karina LeBlanc came off her line to do the same. The two players collided and the ball rolled clear to Portland’s Allie Long, who calmly tapped it into the open net. It was a strange play, clearly resulting from a miscommunication between Erceg and LeBlanc.
Portland slowly took control of the game after drawing even. The Thorns' methodical buildup play and confident control in midfield turned the game in their favor. They applied more pressure and generated better scoring opportunities for most of the second half. At the same time, Chicago’s long ball tactics, which had worked so well in the first half, grew less and less effective as the game progressed.
After several good chances and long stretches of sustained pressure, the Thorns finally grabbed the lead in the 69th minute. Sinead Farrelly brought the ball to the edge of the Red Stars 18-yard box on a jailbreak attack for the Thorns. With four Portland attackers in support ahead of her, Farrelly slid a perfect square pass over to Allie Long. The Thorns’ all-time leading scorer took a touch and fired an unstoppable strike past LeBlanc into the bottom corner.
After falling behind, Chicago looked increasingly disjointed in possession. While individual players continued to make great runs and great plays, they often did so with little or no support. Frustration began to show and even Julie Johnston, who had an otherwise spectacular night on defense for the Red Stars, had a few moments in which she did not seem to be on the same page with her teammates. On one occasion, she went for a quick restart on a free kick, but caught her own squad by surprise and essentially gave the ball right back to Portland. Later, she actually went up over the back of Chalupny to win a header at midfield, clearly startling her captain.
And yet, the Red Stars had their chances to get back into the game. A last-ditch attack in stoppage time kept Portland under pressure and resulted in multiple excellent scoring opportunities. In the dying moments, Christen Press pulled off a jaw-dropping one-on-one move before firing a shot that required an impressive acrobatic save from Betos. Jen Hoy, who came on as a late sub, put a header just over the goal moments later. As it sailed over the woodwork, the final whistle sounded.
Despite the loss, Chicago remains in second place in the NWSL with 27 points. After winning only once in their previous 11 matches, the resurgent Thorns have now won three straight and are charging hard for the fourth and final playoff spot. With 22 points, Portland is actually tied with FC Kansas City for fourth, but trailing on goal difference.
Up next for Chicago is a midweek matinee game against Sky Blue FC, another team playing its best soccer in the final third of the season. Kickoff is at 1pm (CT) on Wednesday, August 12. --MER