Washington Spirit vs. Portland: The real deal

I had a lot of fun tonight on Twitter at the expense of the fans and the ref fawning over Alex Morgan tonight at the SoccerPlex, where attendance was one starting lineup north of 5,000.

But the takeaway from tonight’s game is this: The Portland Thorns aren’t just hype. They’re great.

All the preseason attention went to the star-studded attack allocations — Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair. They showed their skills, with Sinclair fully capable of being a playmaker as well as a target player.

Get past them, and you run into WPS/PSG veteran Allie Long in midfield. Then you hit former U.S. U-20 captain and two-time WPS champion Becky Edwards. Attack the wing, and you run into former U.S. defender Marian (Dalmy) Dougherty. Go up the center, and who’s that making the recovery and clearing the danger? Just national teamer Rachel Buehler.

And you have Nikki Washington, who scored the game-winner in the Thorns’ 2-1 win with a terrific far-post shot after Washington’s Ali Krieger coughed up the ball.

Even the relative unknown — Meleana Shim — played a terrific game Saturday night.

That’s just not fair.

You can’t hand the NWSL trophy to Portland just yet. Kansas City matched up well with them in the season opener. On a given day, Sky Blue or Western New York could give them a run. Maybe Boston, too.

The Spirit made a game of it. The home side (yes, Alex Morgan fanboys — Washington was the home side) had seven shots on goal to Portland’s five. Portland’s opening goal was a penalty kick awarded dubiously after Morgan seemed to be offside, was barely fouled and may or may not have been in the box. Ashlyn Harris was sufficiently incensed by the call to get a yellow card for dissent for her protests before and after the PK.

Fans will be happy to know Harris and Morgan hugged it out in the SoccerPlex’s main building after the game. The Thorns were gracious winners all the way around. When asked if the Thorns did anything to slow down Washington’s all-world midfielder Diana Matheson, coach Cindy Parlow Cone (can we just call her CPC from now on?) said, “I don’t know if there’s anything to slow down that girl. She’s all over the field.”

CPC also singled out the Spirit defense and holding midfield. By name. She listed everyone and apologized for not being able to come up with Domenica Hodak’s name, even though Hodak was making her first start. Quite a change from her old coach, Anson Dorrance, who refers to people as “that girl who used to score a lot against us” or “that other girl who used to give us a tough time” or “that tall girl.”

She might be a rookie coach, but CPC is an early front-runner for coach of the year. She says the right things, she’s intense at the right times, and this team is tactically sound.

And she believes firmly that, despite her team’s unbeaten record, the NWSL is a league of parity. “With only eight teams, every team is really good, and the Spirit is no exception. We were lucky to get out of there with the win.”

Lucky to get the PK call, maybe, and perhaps lucky that Krieger had an off night with a costly turnover. But the Thorns are surely a bit farther along in their development than the youthful Spirit.

Washington coach Mike Jorden sees the work to be done. He made the crowd-pleasing move of starting Caroline Miller ahead of Tiffany McCarty, but Miller was just as tentative as McCarty has been.

Jorden has plenty of options up front, but as my D.C. media buddy Aaron Stollar pointed out tonight, he doesn’t have that one player that requires constant attention from the defense. The Spirit has been most effective with players like Matheson, Stephanie Ochs and Lori Lindsey drifting into the attack. If Miller or McCarty can develop into that dangerous forward, the Spirit will be much better off.

On defense, Candace Chapman was once again on the bench despite pregame claims that she was available to play. But Tori Huster is growing into that center back role. After a strong performance against Abby Wambach and a more difficult time against Sky Blue last week, she had a terrific game against the big-name Thorns offense, making a few timely interceptions and generally minimizing the threats. Ashlyn Harris made one big save, but that was on a long-range Christine Sinclair shot.

Morgan had a few words with Domenica Hodak after a mild foul, then a few more with Diana Matheson after an even milder foul. She just shrugged it off as getting fiesty. “As players, we know that we need to put a good product on the field. We don’t get paid to go out there and fight, we get paid to go out there and play.”

Matheson’s late PK goal was just what the game needed, just enough to remind the crowd that the home team is worth supporting even when someone with nice hair isn’t on the visiting team. The big crowd, packing the SoccerPlex’s stands and the hill with the beer garden, deserved some late drama.

I’ve been insisting that you can’t write Washington’s name in Sharpie at the bottom of the table. I still believe that, especially after Boston’s demolition of Chicago today. They’re still due another couple of players — Chapman, Mexican midfielder Teresa Worbis, and an unnamed Europe-based defender. But it’s also a matter of confidence. The sooner the Spirit get that first win, the better they’ll be.

Until then, Washington fans should just take heart that they’re seeing some good games in a great facility. Enjoy.

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