Thorns using their heads
Solidly in second place, the Portland Thorns are headed in the right direction.
Saturday's win over the Houston Dash — before a season-high gathering of 19,672 at Providence Park — was the Thorns' sixth in nine matches and their fifth consecutive home victory. At 10-5-4 for 34 points, Portland is five points up on third-place Chicago and five behind first-place North Carolina.
The goals against Houston came from headers by Lindsey Horan and Amandine Henry — which might be unusual for the creative Henry but is not unusual for the Thorns.
Portland has six header goals this season — 17 over the past two years. Part of the story is Horan's ability and aggressiveness in the air. Of her eight career National Women's Soccer League goals, five are from headers.
"We had great service, great deliveries, and we happen to be in the right place at the right time and thankfully the ball went in the back of the net," Horan says. "We have many players on this team who are good in the air, so serving the ball in there I think we have a good chance to get a goal, and that's what we did."
The headed goals are a tribute to the crosses into the box the Thorns' wide players are delivering. Meghan Klingenberg, whose pinpoint cross found Horan for the first goal on Saturday, has become a consistent deliverer of dangerous balls.
And Saturday's Horan goal might just be the team's best of the year so far. Horan had the ball near the left sideline and played a cross-field pass to Klingenberg on the left sideline. Horan then took off for the penalty area.
The quick switch and Horan's hustle to beat defenders to the spot was the kind of thing coaches love. Portland coach Mark Parsons calls the play "exceptional."
Horan had incentive to hightail it into the 18-yard box.
"I know 'Kling' can serve that ball any day and hit it on a dime," Horan says. "So once I got it out to her I really wanted to make my way in there and hope for the best and risk it, and she ended up putting it right on my head."
Headed goals don't happen without special deliveries, and Klingenberg has made a few of those lately.
"She's got a great delivery," Parsons says, noting that improved crosses were an offseason focus for Klingenberg. "Her delivery, and the consistency of her delivery, has grown over the past four or five weeks massively."
• The eight shutouts this season are a record both for the Thorns and for goalkeeper Adrianna Franch.
Having a together back four led by Emily Sonnett and Emily Menges is one reason for that. But, as Franch notes, the shutouts tend to come when she doesn't have a lot to do. Against Houston, she had to make one routine save.
"If you look at our clean sheets, they've been when we take it to a team and create pressure," Franch says.
The Houston match was "an all-around good game for the team across the board defensively and offensively," she says. "And when we keep the ball and take care of it and have a lot of attack, we don't have to deal as much in the back. And then the moments we do get we do our job."
• Hayley Raso completed 45 percent of her passes against Houston and missed a glorious scoring opportunity. But it is easy to understand why the Australian whirlybird never seems to stop moving. And, unlike many speedster forwards, Raso sprints as often to defend as she does to get past opposing defender.
Against Houston, she was fouled four times — but was whistled for five infractions. In short, she is a lot of fun to watch — unless you are an opposing defender. And she gets more excited, and exciting, as a match goes along.
"I think she plugs herself in at halftime and recharges, because she comes out second halves in all games — she did it against Kansas (City) — and she just goes and finds the ball," Parsons says.
• After missing the matches in Chicago and Kansas City, Allie Long was inserted in the 54th minute, taking over for Henry in midfield. Also, Nadim played the second half after playing about a half hour on Wednesday in Kansas City.