ON SOCCER/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/ With Heath still to come, Portland on good footing for another title

TRIBUNE PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - New Portland Thorns midfielder Midge Purce controls the ball during Sunday's home-opening, 2-1 victory against the Orlando Pride.Portland Thorns fans had more to get excited about than the terrific first-half goals from Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair in Sunday's 2-1 win over the Orlando Pride.

One of the biggest cheers of the afternoon came when the lineup was announced and Tobin Heath's name was among the available reserves. Heath did not play, but her presence on the bench indicated the Thorns are inching closer to being the team GM/President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson and coach Mark Parsons envision. A team with the firepower and depth to chase a third National Women's Soccer League title.

The fans will be jazzed if Heath returns for Friday's 7:30 p.m. home game against the Washington Spirit. But the Orlando match introduced the faithful to some exciting young Thorns.

Among them is Midge Purce, 22, who spent the afternoon running at and around Orlando defenders and creating trouble on the right flank.

Acquired in the distribution draft after the Boston NWSL team folded, Purce says training against players such as Heath, Horan and Sinclair has been eye-opening. And now, after one home match at Providence Park, Purce feels like "a real Portland Thorn."

There is no more real Thorn than Sinclair, who along with Heath is a Thorns original in her sixth season with the club. At 34, Sinclair remains the driving force for the club.

"It's a privilege to work with her and support her in probably, physically, the best shape of her life," Parsons says. "There's a hunger and positivity and drive in 'Sinc' right now that's contagious."

Purce, forwards Mallory Weber, Tyler Lussi and Ifeoma Onumona, midfielder Celeste Boureille and defender Kelli Hubly have performed well while Portland awaits the return of Heath and the arrival of midfielder Andressinha (Brazil), winger Hayley Raso (Australia) and defender Ellie Carpenter (Australia). Andressinha, Raso and Carpenter should begin training with Portland next week.

Against Orlando, the activity of Weber and Lussi was troublesome to the Pride — and Weber's run to the near post cleared the space Sinclair used to put home Portland's second goal.

Weber and Hubly, who is playing in place of injured defender Emily Menges, were primarily training players for the Thorns last season. The two have stepped comfortably into starting assignments early this year.

Parsons says he has learned to adapt to having players often called away by their national teams.

"The biggest thing we learned from last year is we're playing soccer that suits the players we've got right now," he says. "It's really positive. It's hard-working (soccer), and it's trying to break lines and get forward and pin the opposition in their 18-yard box and score some goals."

Positive describes the early impression made by forward Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic. The all-time scoring leader for Switzerland had several scoring chances after entering Sunday's game with a half-hour remaining.

"This is a really cool player," Parsons says, "and when she gets fired up, you guys are going to fall in love because she's got heart the size of this crowd.

"She wants to help us win every single moment, never mind every single game."

n Sunday's crowd of 16,466 was not the largest of the weekend in the NWSL. The Utah Royals — the former FC Kansas City franchise — drew more than 19,000 for its inaugural home match. It will be interesting to see if Utah can join Portland as a true NWSL hotbed. The Thorns play at Utah on April 28.

Around MLS

This could be a memorable season. The influx of international stars such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the Los Angeles Galaxy grabs headlines — for good reason — but the depth clubs are building via Targeted Allocation Money has been more important for the overall product.

Just ask last season's MVP.

"It's improving all the time," Diego Valeri of the Portland Timbers says about the level of play in the league this season. "Every team is investing better, and it makes it competitive."

Portland fans saw one of those investments on Saturday. Minnesota United's Darwin Quintero, that club's first Designated Player, made his MLS debut and gave the Timbers fits in the second half. He spun past fellow Colombian Diego Chara, something rarely seen, to score Minnesota's first goal. The 30-year-old's lofted ball out of midfield led to the own goal that pulled the visitors within a goal late in a 3-2 Portland victory.

"He grew up a lot in the second half," Valeri says. "He played a great second half. He helped them a lot in the 1-v-1s and scored a great goal."

Next comes a 3 p.m. Sunday visit from New York City FC, which is off to a flying start, NYC features a trio of impactful Designated Players — led by David Villa and his 65 MLS goals in 98 MLS matches since moving to the club from Atletico Madrid in 2015.

Villa has been working back from injury and came off the bench in two recent games after missing three. Even so, NYC is on top of MLS at 5-0-2 — and came from behind for a 2-2 draw in last weekend's showdown at Atlanta.

The other DPs for the team that calls Yankee Stadium home are Argentine Maxi Moralez (four goals, two assists) and 20-year-old Paraguayan midfielder Jesus Medina (one goal, five assists).

But the statistic that says the most about the challenge facing the Timbers: New York City has lost only once in its last 10 regular-season road matches (4-1-5) dating to August.

The Timbers (1-3-2, 5 points) have won seven consecutive regular-season home matches. And they can carry more confidence coming off the first win of the season.

But the victory over Minnesota won't lessen the strain this weekend.

"You always have pressure," Valeri says. "Next game we have to be improved."

n In the Portland-Minnesota game, the ball went into the net seven times. But two goals — one for each team — were overturned by video replay because the scorer was seen as offside. In both cases, referee Jose Carlos Rivero took the word of video assistant referee Alex Chilowicz and did not review the plays himself, decisions that shortened the review time.

n Right back Alvas Powell, the 23-year-old Jamaican who scored the first Portland goal against Minnesota and delivered the deflected cross that Valeri scored from, was MLS Player of the Week.

n The biggest story in MLS this week is Toronto playing in the CONCACAF Champions League finals. Toronto, last season's MLS Cup and Supporter's Shield winner, is shooting to become the league's first champion in the event. The two-leg final series against Chivas de Guadalajara opened at Toronto on Tuesday and will conclude next Wednesday in Mexico.

This is the third time since the regional championship adopted its current format in 2008 that an MLS club has reached the final, but Real Salt Lake (2011) and Montreal (2015) came up short. Beating a team from Liga MX would be a notable step not only for the reigning MLS Cup champions, but also for MLS.

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