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What happened to Thorns' firepower?

Portland counts on Heath's arrival to ignite turnaround


by: COURTESY OF JOHN LARIVIERE - Forward Christine Sinclair has scored only two goals in 13 games for the Portland Thorns, who are 6-6-3 in defense of their National Womens Soccer League title going into a Wednesday road game against the Chicago Red Stars.The Portland Thorns FC have some of the greatest attacking players in women’s soccer.

So it is almost unbelievable that Portland’s offense has put up just 21 goals in 15 matches.

That includes a six-goal onslaught against the Washington Spirit on June 21 which accounts for 28.5 percent of the Thorns’ 2014 goals.

Take that match away and Portland (6-6-3) is averaging barely over one goal a match in defense of its 2013 National Women’s Soccer League title.

So why is it that a side with Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan cannot put the ball in the back of the net?

First-year Thorns coach Paul Riley does not have an answer.

“We had a good chat this week about a lot of different things,” Riley said, after Portland’s 2-2 home draw against the Chicago Red Stars on the Fourth of July. “We had a good team meeting where we aired some things and stuff. They’re really positive. It’s not like Alex believes she’s not going to score or ‘Sinc’ believes she’s not going to score or Veró (Boquete) doesn’t believe she’s going to score.

“We spent the whole week on the final third of the field,” Riley said, adding, “Chances come and chances go and eventually you pay the price. We seem to pay the price every time.”

During the match against the Red Stars, Riley sat Sinclair for the first half. The Canadian national team star is arguably the greatest striker in the world. And yet, Sinclair has scored just three goals in her 14 NWSL matches this year.

Riley says the decision was made because he thought Sinclair looked “tired,” though he also mentioned that the move could instill some “hunger” in Sinclair.

“Sinc looks tired,” Riley says. “She’s looked tired the last couple of weeks. It was merely with six games in the next 2 1/2 weeks, there’s a lot of games coming up. Obviously, we wanted to go to a 4-4-2. We played a diamond, which is the preferred formation coming into the season. We felt it was a good opportunity to rest Sinc and give her a bit of a blow. Get some hunger back.

“She was in residency with Canada for a good six months before she came into camp, and I just want to get some life back in her. I told her before the game and she’s good with it and the team moved on.”

Portland striker Jessica McDonald has been outstanding this year, accounting for nine of the side’s goals. McDonald came to the Thorns as a 25-year-old journey-woman playing for her third club in two seasons. Riley says the Thorns will use combinations of McDonald, Sinclair and Morgan in the upcoming matches.

“You’ll see Jess and Sinc together,” Riley says. “You’ll see Alex and Jess together. You’ll see Alex and Sinc together. It’s just a matter of finding which works best as we get toward the end of the season.”

by: COURTESY OF JOHN LARIVIERE - Forward Alex Morgan, coming off an injury, is looking for her first NWSL point of 2014. Shes played in only four games this year for the Portland Thorns.McDonald says the different striker combinations can help jumpstart Portland as well as help continue her success.

“It’s extraordinary, because those are players I still look up to, being some of the world’s greatest at this point,” McDonald says, of Sinclair and Morgan. “We’re all different types of forwards, which makes it a special front line. We read off each other. We know that if Sinc wants the ball at her feet. The other forward needs to try and go for that through ball. It’s all about getting used to each other’s strengths at the same time. It’ll work someday with all of us up top together.”

The Thorns are tied with the Red Stars for fifth place in the NWSL with nine regular-season matches remaining. The top four clubs make the playoffs.

Portland cannot hope to catch the Seattle Reign (13-0-3, 42 points) or probably even FC Kansas City (10-4-3, 33), so homefield advantage for the playoffs is out of the question.

The Thorns will battle the Western New York Flash (7-8-2, 23), the Washington Spirit (7-7-2, 23) and the Red Stars (6-6-3, 21) for the final two playoff spots.

“It’s getting down to crunch time,” Portland defender Sarah Huffman says. “A lot of the teams are close together. It’s a short season, but it is a journey. We’re not going to hang our heads. We all believe in each other in the locker room. Our journey is to be peaking come the end of August, but to get there we need to start moving forward, and that’s what we’re going to focus on doing.”

The Thorns will hope that the addition of attacking midfielder Tobin Heath will help put them over the edge. Heath, a regular starter on the U.S. women’s national team, made her season debut against the Red Stars on July 4 after spending the first part of the NWSL season playing in France.

Riley says he was more or less pleased with the way Heath handled herself against Chicago.

“I love Tobin as a player,” Riley says. “She’s a great footballer. First half, she was dynamic and got in the game. She and Veró looked really good together. Then she started mucking around with the ball a little bit for me, in that 5-10 minutes prior to them (the Red Stars) getting back in game (after trailing 2-0).

“I said to Tobin ‘It’s not like playing in the French league.’ Maybe playing in the French league you can mickey around with the ball when you’re winning 4 or 5 to nothing. But in this league, nothing is safe, because the teams are so good.

“But she’s a great footballer. She’ll bring a lot to us, especially going forward. She’s so clean on the ball. She doesn’t give the ball away. It’s her first game, in all fairness to her. She played 70 minutes coming off her flight and everything else. I think she’ll settle in and be good for us.”