By PAUL DANZER
Columbian staff writer
PORTLAND – It did not produce the volume of goals that Thorns fans have enjoyed at recent home games, but the goal that was scored on Sunday at Providence Park was special and significant.
Portland’s third 1-0 win of the season over the expansion Houston Dash came in front of a crowd of 19,123, a record for the second-year National Women’s Soccer League. But the number that matters most to the Thorns is that the victory puts them five points ahead of Chicago for the last place in the playoffs.
The Thorns (9-7-6, 33 points) have two games left in the regular season. Fifth-place Chicago has 28 points and has three games remaining. Portland visits last-place Boston next Sunday and closes the season with an Aug. 17 home match against first-place Seattle.
Veronica Boquete’s goal in the 54th minute was high quality, and proved to be enough for the Thorns to beat a hard-working Houston team.
Steph Catley delivered a curving ball from the left that Boquete met near the penalty spot and struck cleanly into the goal.
“In an important game like tonight in front of almost 20,000 people, I think it will be for sure one of the best memories of my career,” Boquete said. “When Steph got the ball, I felt that she would cross that ball and the ball will be there.”
Catley said a run behind her by Mana Shim opened up the space for her to cut inside and deliver the cross.
“I was able to take a touch in and whip it around,” Catley said “It’s easy to put the ball in but the finishing’s the hard bit. Vero’s so classy and she finished it off, so that’s awesome.”
Thorns coach Paul Riley called the goal “brilliant.”
The coach had other thoughts about a sluggish first half when the Thorns only shot on goal was a quick toe punch from Alex Morgan on a designed corner-kick play late in the first half.
After scoring 13 goals in their previous two home matches, the Thorns struggled during a scoreless first half to create clean scoring chances against a well-organized Houston defense.
“One thing we talked about at halftime was tempo. We had no tempo in the first half,” Riley said. “The game was so slow. In the second half I thought we had some great tempo.”
His other message was to get Boquete the ball more often.
In the first half, Boquete said, the Thorns were playing the short pass too often when the better option might have been to pass beyond the compact Houston defense into space.
“In the second half they stretched the (Houston defense) and we found more space. That situation is when I feel more power,” Boquete said.
The Thorns said they got plenty of energy from the record crowd, which topped the club’s 2013 high of 17,619.
“To have them pack the whole place out, and they’re so loud and every single one of them is so passionate. So, it gives you a lift,” Catley said.
“You hear them and you don’t want to let them down.”
German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, who made two saves and posted her first home shutout for the Thorns, said German reporters in Portland for Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game were “positively surprised” by the turnout.
Riley said he continues to be amazed by the fan support, and that the team has gotten more comfortable late in the season playing in front of large crowds.
“I said at halftime: How can you not be inspired to play in front of this?’ They’re just dying to sing more, so give them something to sing about.”
With a moment of magic, Boquete and Catley did just that.
NOTES – Boquete spent several moments on the ground after a collision with a Houston defender in the second half. She said she caught an inadvertent elbow to the throat and had trouble breathing for a minute. Riley said that defender Rachele Van Hollebeke (concussion) has the best chance of returning for the Aug. 10 match at Boston. He said Tobin Heath is targeting the Aug. 17 home match against Seattle for her return. The coach is doubtbul that Sinead Farrelly will be able to play again this season. The Thorns already have Vancouver’s Kat Tarr and defender Courtney Niemiec on the disabled list for the remainder of the season.