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NWSL: Referee steals spotlight as Portland Thorns defeat Seattle Reign 1-0 on penalty

By Liviu Bird

TUKWILA, Wash. — A back-and-forth, physical match between Seattle Reign FC and Portland Thorns FC on Saturday came down to one moment. Christine Sinclair stepped up and coolly dispatched a penalty kick into the left side of the goal, capping off the controversial sequence that decided the 1-0 result in Portland’s favor.

With seven minutes remaining, referee Margaret Domka blew her whistle and pointed to the penalty spot, but nobody among the two teams and 3,324 fans in Starfire Stadium seemed to know why. Seattle right back Kristen Meier appeared to make no contact with Alex Morgan, but the whistle blew anyway.

“The referees are a joke,” Reign head coach Laura Harvey said after the game, summing up her thoughts on the sequence succinctly.

Hope Solo, making her season debut after recovering from wrist surgery in March, also had little to say after the game.

“Unfortunately, Portland didn’t earn the victory,” Solo said, “and I think that’s what’s most disappointing for our team. They didn’t earn it. Dubious call. Referee gives it up. That’s really all I’ve got to say.”

Cascadia Soccer Wire submitted a question intended for the referee to the National Women’s Soccer League via email after the match. There was no immediate response. A Reign spokesman, under instruction from the league, said that would be the only way to submit a question for match officials, which would then be passed on to the Professional Referee Organization for processing.

Both sets of players were unhappy with the officiating. The Thorns had an earlier penalty call denied, in the 67th minute on an apparent handball in the box, despite Sinclair’s loud protests. The match contained 21 fouls and three yellow cards. All three cautions went to Portland players: Morgan, Becky Edwards and Marian Dougherty.

“I think the people in green missed a good game tonight,” Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone said. “I think there was a lot of confusion on the field (about) what was a foul, what wasn’t a foul, what’s a card, what’s not a card. That adds to the physical play when there’s confusion on the field with the players.”

The controversy at the end overshadowed the first-ever NWSL matchup between Solo and Morgan. While Morgan’s appearance came as no surprise, Solo’s NWSL debut came at least a couple weeks ahead of schedule. On March 8, U.S. Soccer announced the starting national team goalkeeper would need wrist surgery to repair a torn tendon. The press release listed Solo’s expected comeback as being three or four months away. On Friday, the Reign announced that Solo would immediately be added to the active roster, although a full comeback still did not seem likely.

Aside from some sporadic touches, neither played a big role in the game’s opening stretch, which played out largely on the opposite end of the field. The Reign kept possession of the ball and looked the more dangerous side in the first half.

“They were doing well possessing the ball, so I think we couldn’t figure it out for a while,” Morgan said. “Finally, we did, around the 30th minute or so, but thankfully in the second half, we came out after going in the locker room and stepped it up.”

Portland’s best chance of the half came when Sinclair smashed a dipping volley wide of Solo’s goal from outside the penalty area in the 14th minute. When Morgan got close to the ball, center back Kaylyn Kyle was often the player closest to her. Kyle, making just her second career start in the back, made her presence felt with some strong tackling.

Seattle pressed forward with multiple set pieces in the first 45 minutes, including eight corners and several attacking free-kick opportunities. Thorns goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc came off her line to punch several times, including when Keelin Winters challenged her for an aerial ball in the 19th minute.

“I think our defense, especially our back line and Karina in goal, just keeps getting better, week in and week out,” Parlow Cone said. “They’re just so strong back there. They’re fast, they’re technical, they read the game so well. They’re fun to watch.”

In the second half, the team higher in the standings asserted its dominance. In the 53rd minute, Morgan held the ball up at midfield, laying it off for Sinclair to streak through the midfield and send a low cross for Mana Shim that the Reign defense scrambled clear. The Thorns’ incessant pressure kept the ball around the Reign penalty area for the majority of the second half.

“We were successful when we played the forwards and laid it off,” Morgan said. “That broke down their block in the midfield.”

As it has all season, the Reign offense sputtered in the second half. LeBlanc snuffed out Seattle’s only opportunities, including two back-to-back saves in the 62nd minute that kept the score even. Despite the Reign’s strong start and large amount of possession, a final product still lacked. Bogus hit the post with 15 minutes left, symbolizing another frustrating night in front of goal for her team.

“Seattle is a great team, and they have been unfortunate to not get results because all their games I’ve watched, they’ve been dangerous in every single game, and tonight was no different,” Parlow Cone said. “They played a great game, created a lot of chances and gave us a lot of trouble.”

The Reign (0-7-1, 1 point, eighth place) plays Haiti on June 1 at Starfire in a friendly match, while the Thorns (6-1-1, 19 points, tied for first place) host the Chicago Red Stars on the same day. Seattle returns to league play on June 9 against FC Kansas City, also at home.

Notes:

• In eight games this season, Seattle has used eight different lineups, while Portland has used three.

“We haven’t won games,” Harvey said. “If you keep playing the same team, you go insane. I’m not insane, so I’ll keep trying something different. I thought tonight, it worked. When you can reduce a team that has the strike power of Portland to no shots inside your 18-yard box — bar a penalty — then you can argue that you’ve done your job.”

• The announced attendance of 3,324 easily eclipsed the previous season high of 2,618 in the Reign’s home opener against FC Kansas City. Aside from loud cheers from the home support, Portland’s traveling fans provided constant noise from their perch above the Thorns’ bench.

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