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Thorns stick it to Houston again

Dash fall in repeat scoreline of season opener

Trask Smith

The Houston Dash hosted NWSL champs the Portland Thorns Wednesday night at BBVA Compass stadium, looking for a chance at revenge after their explosive debut against the Thorns back in April. That match ended in a 1-0 loss for the Dash. Wednesday night would find Houston staring at the exact same scoreline, despite multiple attempts on goal and holding most of the possession of the match.

As explosive as the start of the first match between these two teams was, the start of Wednesday's match was much tamer. The Dash and Thorns seemed content to sit back and test each other comfortably rather than force too much. In the 8th minute, the Thorns got their first real chance at goal. After a close set piece, Portland was able to win the ball and get a great service into Jessica McDonald who was waiting near the back post. She took a shot, but it went just wide of Erin McLeod's goal.

A few minutes later, Austrian Nina Burger was able to get around the Portland defense. But before she could get around to make a shot, Thorns' defender Nikki Marshall stripped her of the ball and sent it back toward midfield. At this point, things were getting heated and Portland made a run on Houston's goal. From the back post, McDonald made a pass back to Christine Sinclair, who had a scary shot toward goal. Thankfully, it went wide and spared the Dash going down a goal early.

This back and forth continued during the early minutes of the match. In the 16th minute, however, Ella Masar was taken down by Thorns' defender Kat Tarr, resulting in a free kick. Arianna Romero came up with a great ball into the box, which found the head of Houston's Jackson. However, the ball would nip the post and Portland keeper Nadine Angerer would be there to make sure it was batted away from goal.

One thing that was impressive from the Dash during the first half was the pressure from the offense. Possession was mostly theirs as they continued to win the ball in the midfield, keeping clean, nice one-touch passes to get Burger and Masar up to challenge the Thorns' defense.

Burger is a force to be reckoned with. In the 25th minute, her one-on-one work against the Thorns' defense almost resulted in a goal. Unfortunately, she slipped a bit and it ruined her shot; but she fought to get the ball back and win a corner for the Dash. Nothing would come of that corner, but the effort from Burger was astounding.

In the 30th minute, Dash's Jordan Jackson was taken down in a fair challenge in the Thorn's half of the pitch. She seemed to take an elbow to the head and was down for quite a bit before she jogged off field for more treatment. Moments later she was back on the pitch.

On the restart, Burger immediately had pressure on Portland's back line again and won another corner. Stephanie Ochs' swinging kick didn't produce anything, but the pressure from the Dash didn't back off. A few quick passes had the offensive rushing toward Portland's goal again, but Marshall came up big for the Thorns again and killed the play, winning the ball from Masar.

If it didn't seem like the Dash were in control of the half up to this point, it definitely became undeniably obvious in the dying minutes of the half. Pressure from the midfield and the offense stayed constant, testing the Portland backline constantly. Ochs took a shot on goal in the 37th minute - a strike from about 35 yards out - but it didn't have enough power on it. Angerer picked it up quickly. Three minutes later, Kaylyn Kyle started a run for the Dash after a one-touch pass to Jackson, who lobbed it toward goal. The shot would go just wide.

Another almost goal from the Dash came on a counter. Becky Edwards got a one-touch to Kyle who got it Burger. After a dummy pass toward Masar, Jackson got on the end of the ball and cracked off a shot that tested Thorns' German keeper Angerer. She was able to get a hold on the ball, unfortunately, and stopped what would have been a hell of a first goal for the Dash.

Portland started to pick up the offensive pace in the last minutes of the first half. But the Dash's defense stayed strong and McLeod made two great, confident saves. And so the first half ended 0-0, with Houston being the clear dominate side from the first 45. It was the first time this season the Dash ended a half with no goals scored against them.

Straight out of the gate of the second half, Portland tested the Houston backline. Angie Kerr chased down a ball near the corner and swung it into the box. However, McLeod was on top of it, coming off her line and reaching up to grab the ball out of the air.

Quickly after, fortunate struck. Edwards flicked a ball into the box and Portland's important defensive player Marshall was called for a hand ball. The ref awarded a penalty to Houston and finally, it looked like the long-awaited first goal on home turf was coming.

Kyle stepped up to the spot and shot toward the left corner. Angerer was off her line at the right moment and blocked the shot. She was then able to get up enough and block the rebound shot from Rafaelle Souza. It was a tough blow for Houston, who were clearly getting frustrated.

The Thorns used that frustration to their advantage in next few minutes. Two bursts from their offense saw a few chances on goal, but McLeod was strong on her line and in the air, stopping both major goal opportunities. It was clear a shift in the game was happening. Sinclair had a nice shot on goal that was blocked, but a dirty clearance from Kyle saw the ball back in Portland's possession and another shot from their offense. McLeod again came up big in the air, snatching the ball.

But Houston wasn't done yet. In the 56th, Burger pushed again, after being a bit silent during the beginning of the second half. Her shot on goal was deflected and earned the Dash a corner. However, the kick was too wide and no player was able to get in on it.

Jessica McDonald would make the Dash pay for their missed opportunities though. The Dash defense lost focus, and Tarr was able to get a nice pass in the back. McDonald was waiting and knocked it in right past McLeod. 1-0 Portland.

The quick presses from the Thorns' offense broke down the Dash defense. A minute later, they would again work against the Houston back line and force another save from McLeod. Kyle would lose the ball in the midfield and again, Portland would press. Sinclair made a strong shot on goal and it went just wide, trickling past the far post.

All the work the Dash did in the first half in the midfield was virtually nonexistent in the second half. After her missed penalty, Kyle seemed sluggish and off her game. The defense continued to bunch together in front of goal instead of staying spread out and marking players. The calmness Houston possessed in the first half disappeared. Even the speedy Kealia Ohai, who came in during the 55th minute, couldn't bring the possession back.

Dash's head coach Randy Waldrum tried another substitution to strengthen his offensive push. Jackson was replaced by Teresa Noyola, who was instrumental in Houston's win against the Boston Breakers earlier in the season. She offered a bit more stability in the midfield and created some passing opportunities, but the goals just wouldn't happen for Houston.

Burger again showed up after being quiet for a few minutes to almost bring the teams level. Ohai had a run on goal and after almost loosing possession, was able to get the ball back. She passed it to Ochs, who lobbed it in to a rushing Burger. With Angerer off her line, Burger tried to head the ball in, but it would soar above goal. However, it seemed Houston was getting a second wind.

The one-touch passing came back - Noyola being on the starting end of many of the rushes toward goal. But still, Houston couldn't crack the back of the Portland line.

Houston's new acquired midfielder, Kelly McFarlane, replaced Burger in the 74th. Seconds later, Romero had a long throw in, which got to the head of McFarlane, who sent it toward Ohai. But the North Carolina product couldn't get past Angerer, who covered the ball once more.

Portland tried for a second goal a few more times. Though the Dash back line seemed to tire, they held strong, able to get the ball back to the midfield to help create chances for the offense. During the last five minutes of the match, caution was thrown to the wind by both teams. Houston had several set pieces awarded them, but couldn't produce anything of significance. But they continued to battle on. Sinclair tried several times to slip a few ball in goal, but keeper McLeod denied her each time.

It was sort of a free for all in the 88th minute. McDonald had rocketed a shot toward goal which had McLeod making a diving save at point-blank range. Houston tried to counter a few more times, unable to get service needed to break the Portland defense.

The 90th minute brought a free kick to the Dash, a final chance. Houston flooded the box and Romero's kick resulted in a corner being awarded to the Dash. Holly Hein found the ball at her feet on the far post, but fumbled and it slipped out of bounds.

And so, despite holding most of the possession and having multiple chances on goal, the match would end the same way the first game of the season did; 1-0 Portland.

While it was increasingly frustrating to watch the Thorns' defense shut down Houston, the game was quite possibly one of the most entertaining. Nina Burger and Rafaella Souza are key points forward for the Dash. Their tactics help create almost all of Houston's chances throughout the match. And as always, Ella Masar is a beast, doing anything and everything she can to get the ball toward goal.

Kyle is fantastic in the midfield, but in the second half, her skill waned quite a bit. It could have been the blow of missing the penalty or being tired, but it was clear the longer the game went on, the more she lost her effectiveness in this match.

The Houston defense was also fantastic tonight as well. McLeod is without a doubt one of the best keepers in the league. She's not afraid to challenge players and when she comes off her line, she makes killer saves.

In the future, Waldrum will want to work on set pieces with his players. The opportunities for goals off set pieces tonight were tremendous - each one wasted by the Dash. Hopefully the tough lesson has been learned.

The Dash's next game will be Sunday, May 18 against FC Kansas City at 5 p.m. CT

Starting XI:

Portland: Angerer, Niemiec, Marshall, Menges, Tarr; Moros (Huffman 69'), Brooks, Kerr (Shim 80'), Farrelly; Sinclair, McDonald.

Houston: McLeod, Romero, Hein, Ohale, Jackson (Noyola 65'); Edwards, Masar, Kyle; Souza (Ohai 55'), Burger (McFarlane 74'), Ochs.