It only took three minutes for the new National Women’s Soccer League to find its first goal scorer, with FC Kansas City’s Renae Cueller beating Karina LeBlanc in the third minute of Saturday’s opener. For over an hour, the lead held, but when a controversial whistle gave Thorns captain Christine Sinclair an opportunity from the spot, Portland had the chance they needed to secure a 1-1 draw in front of 6,784 at Shawnee Mission District Stadium in Overland Park, Kan.
It was an strong start for a league that’s hoping the third time’s a charm for women’s professional soccer. Yes, the match was played on turf at a high school venue, and those people who waded through the choppy internet stream the NWSL offered on its YouTube channel saw high school football lines serve as a perpetual reminder of the league’s modest beginnings, but fans were also privy to a quality of play that WUSA and WPS — the two previous professional leagues — would have been hard pressed to match. While the talent in midfield for both teams meant that quality often cancelled out, long time fans of the women’s game could close their browser windows happy. The NWSL looks promising.
That promise started with Cuellar’s goal, a left-footed finish from 16 yards out that began 20 minutes of control for the hosts. The stretch gave NWSL fans every reason to believe a deep FCKC squad can compete with a star-laden Thorns team that’s been singled out as the league favorites.
Though play started to even out mid-way through the first half, the two sitting midfielders in Vlatko Andonovski’s 4-2-3-1 variant continued cutting off Portland’s access to their most dangerous weapons: Sinclair and strike partner Alex Morgan. A talent Thorns midfield was neutered by Desiree Scott and Jen Buczowski’s two-woman shield, the fast turf, and their own inability to effectively move the ball. Morgan, the league’s biggest star, was taken out of the game. Portland may have the most talented team in the league, but going into halftime, there was little doubt they’d been outplayed.
Why Thorns FC were able to recover in the second half is open to interpretation. Form Portland’s point of view, an increase in intensity, particularly with their forwards pressing Kansas City’s defenders, helped sway the game. But that may only tell part of the story. As the match bled on FCKC lost the abandon with which they were throwing attackers at Portland’s back line. Second half questions of the Thorns’ defense often left Cuellar isolated. The rest of her team played too reverential, and by the hour mark, Portland was convincingly controlling play.
It still took a beneficial whistle for the Thorns to pull even. In the 66th minute Danielle Foxhoven, recently brought on for Angie Kerr, appeared to be pulled down by Kansas City’s Lauren Sesselman near the edge of the six-yard box. It was the type of foul that may have looked more convincing to a trailing referee than a television audience, though Andonovski and defender Becky Sauerbrunn would later express their disagreement with the call. But those refrains had to wait until after the match, one left drawn after Sinclair buried the penalty kick.
For Portland, it was a fortuitous draw, though given how they’d come into the game, they very well could have created a goal over the match’s final 23 minutes. Their midfield was average, and a defense that was questioned during preseason was at fault for Kansas City’s only goal. Still, by the end of the match, Portland seemed to have evened the scales.
Kansas City played a big part in that. In the second half, they lacked the intensity that caused Portland to scramble over the first 45 minutes. Throwing Casey Loyd, Lauren Cheney, and Kristie Mewis forward to attack off of Cuellar in the first half, FCKC was able to constantly stress the Thorns with quick transitions out of their own end. That verve was absent over the last 45, allowing Portland to come back into the match.
Ultimately, this may be a result that suits both sides. Because of the quality of their team and the surface they play on, Kansas City may prove one of the more difficult teams to take points from on the road. And from FCKC’s point of view, they can take solace in earning a point from a full strength Thorns squad.
Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair spoke to OregonLive.com’s Geoffrey C. Arnold after Saturday’s match: