Alex Morgan's second-half goal keeps defending NWSL champs alive

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Forward Alex Morgan celebrates her winning goal in Sunday's 1-0 victory over the Seattle Reign.The Portland Thorns came to Providence Park on Sunday and looked defeat and disappointment straight in the teeth.

Portland needed a win against the rival Seattle Reign to keep their season alive and to reach the playoffs. A loss or a draw and it would be “wait until next year” for the defending National Women’s Soccer League champions.

The Thorns rose up like true champs before an announced crowd of 17,109.

Portland broke a scoreless match in the 68th minute when striker Alex Morgan found herself on the end of a corner kick by midfielder Allie Long. Morgan headed the ball into the goal and gave the Thorns a 1-0 victory, handing Seattle only its second loss of the season and sending Portland to the postseason.

“I thought if we could keep the game tight, close, 1-0, 2-1, we could win,” Thorns coach Paul Riley said. “If it became a slugfest, I thought we’d get beat. We tried to keep the game tighter than normal, and I thought the game plan worked well.”

The Thorns (10-8-6, 36 points) will be the No. 3 seed in the NWSL playoffs. They will play the No. 2 seed, the FC Kansas City (12-7-5, 41 points) on the road at 10 a.m. PT Saturday.

The Reign (16-2-6, 54 points) will welcome the No. 4 seed, the Chicago Red Stars (9-7-8, 35 points), to Memorial Stadium in Seattle at 8 p.m. Sunday in the other semifinal.

The title game is set for noon Sunday, Aug. 31 at the site of the highest advancing seed.

“We match up pretty well with Kansas City,” Riley said. “If I’d had the choice of who to play, it would be Kansas. They’re a good side. They play great football, which I think helps us, too. We seem to do well against the teams that play football, as opposed to teams that play direct.”

Portland finished Sunday's match with 14 shots, six on goal. Seattle had nine shots, including five on goal.

Throughout the match, a battle raged between Thorns striker Alex Morgan and Reign goalkeeper Hope Solo. The U.S. women’s national team teammates went head-to-head during the first 45 minutes, with Solo coming out on top each time.

“In the first half, luck definitely was not going my way,” Morgan said.

In the 68th minute, though, Morgan got the best of Solo and put the Thorns into the league's final four.

Long sent a beautiful corner kick into the 6-yard box. Morgan timed her run perfectly. She leaped and knocked a vicious header at the left post. Solo was out of position, and the only player that could stop the shot was defender Elli Reed. She got her body on the ball, but not enough to redirect it. The ball slipped inside the post, and Portland was up 1-0.

“Allie played a great ball in, and my run was to the near post and my goal was just to get in front of my defender and get it in, and luckily it went in,” Morgan said. “Out of all the chances, I’m pretty good shooting with my feet, not so good with my head, but a goal’s a goal.”

The Thorns chased the match from the opening whistle. Portland moved the ball up the pitch mercilessly, hoping to go up a goal and perhaps make the Reign pack it in and save their strength for the playoffs.

In the 12th minute, Morgan stole a pass 40 yards from goal. She took off on a run, flying by the Seattle back line. When she was 20 yards out, Morgan fired. The shot was left of center, but not far enough toward the post. Solo was there to make a diving save.

Morgan was again denied by Solo in the 22nd minute. Portland defender Becca Moros sent a pass into the 6-yard box that found Morgan unmarked and starring at an empty net. Morgan tried to play the ball off her thighs, but she was unable to get her feet set properly for a quick shot. That gave Solo time to fly over to the left post. When Morgan was finally able to try to send a toe-poke at goal, Solo was there to make an easy save.

As the second half began, Seattle began to control the possession. The Reign moved the ball up the pitch when it was convenient, but more important, they kept the ball away from Portland’s offense.

Portland tried a counter-attack in the 58th minute. Morgan streaked down the pitch on the right side. She got to the 18-yard box and tried to slot a shot to the near post. Solo was there for an easy save, though.

Afterward, Seattle went back to controlling the rhythm of the match, leaving Portland trying to plot counter-attacks.

In the 65th minute, Riley decided he was not going to leave any bullets in the chamber. He replaced midfielder Tobin Heath with striker Jessica McDonald, who is tied for third in the NWSL with 11 goals.

Moments later, Morgan and the Thorns got the goal they needed.

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