It looked so easy last season. The Portland Thorns rolled though the 2016 NWSL season with nary a doubt of who the best team in the league was during the regular season. Though the Thorns were upset from the playoffs early, they had what they felt was ample motivation to steamroll through the regular season once more in 2017 and earn a chance at redemption in the playoffs.
It hasn’t been so easy this season.
Injuries, commitments to international duty, sub-par performances on the road, including Wednesday’s letdown against Kansas City FC in front of what appeared to be 10 or 12 in attendance, have all led to a season that a month ago was looking like a disaster. This season had the makings of a fall from grace reminiscent of the 2016 Portland Timbers. Could the Thorns actually miss the playoffs?
As of mid -July, however, the Thorns have won four of their last five games and sit in second place in the standings, positioning themselves for a hopeful return date at Providence Park for the first round of the playoffs.
If there is a saving grace to this season for the Thorns, it is coach Mark Parsons who has steered his team from the stormy seas of uncertainly into calmer, more assured waters. His team sits in second place even though 2016 U.S. women’s Player of the Year Tobin Heath has been absent all season, Nadia Nadim has been away at the Women’s Euro leading Denmark, and a constant scattering of injuries has left the Thorns at less than full strength all year. Now, if he can just find a way to have his team win consistently on the road, a place more than likely the Thorns will have to be successful to earn a trip to the NWSL Championship game in Orlando.
It has been goals by committee this season with the absences of Heath and Nadim. Christine Sinclair leads the team with five goals, and with Allie Long (two goals) and Lindsey Horan (three goals) drawing a majority of the attention from opponents, the Thorns have had a teams’ worth of players score this season. Only four players have started all 18 games this season for Portland.
With just six games remaining in the season, winning the NWSL Shield is not the top priority anymore, though it is still possible. The Thorns are just hoping to get healthy and in sync for this last stretch of games. As last year painfully proved, having the best record does not guarantee a championship.
The big question will be if Heath can return within the next month. And if she does, just how much of an impact she can make. However, a Heath who is 50 percent in game-shape is better than no Heath at all. However, there is one caveat to having Heath potentially return; the Thorns are playing about as well together as the have all season and when you insert a player as talented and dynamic as Heath, it will take a bit of time for the team to re-orient themselves and gel again. Of course, this is assuming she comes back at all.
The Thorns begin their final push for the playoffs this Saturday evening at Providence Park against the Houston Dash. With games against the Seattle Reign (away), Orlando Pride (away), and Chicago Red Stars (home) ahead, all teams just below the Thorns in the standings, Portland will need to continue its winning ways at home (7-1-1) while finding a way to reverse its fortunes on the road (2-4-3).
In 2016, a near perfect year ended in a waterfall of downed expectations and tears. This season, the Thorns will be seeking a new ending. In 2017, perfection may have to wait until October.