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  • 16 Sep 2014

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  • 17 Sep 2014

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LeBlanc saves the day for Portland Thorns

Western New York Flash striker Abby Wambach is perhaps the best striker to ever play women’s soccer. She showed just how good she could be in the 37th minute of Sunday afternoon’s match against the Portland Thorns FC, when she buried a shot to put the Flash up 1-0.

In the 82nd minute, though, after Allie Long was called for a foul in the box, Portland goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc came out on top in a one-on-one battle with the superstar striker.

Wambach sent a soft penalty kick to the bottom left corner and LeBlanc guessed right, blocking the PK and preserving a 1-1 draw before an announced crowd of 13,021.

“If I tell you the secret, I’m going to have to kill you,” LeBlanc said, smiling when asked how she blocked the PK. “No, Abby took a PK last game. I’ve gone against her a couple of times over the years and try to read her.

"I was thinking she was going to go one way, but then she opened up and I tried to read her. I was fortunate to be right this time. I got just enough of it.”    

Even with LeBlanc’s heroics, the match should not have been left up to a late penalty kick. The Thorns dominated large portions of the game, outshot the Flash 20-14 and put 10 shots on frame to seven by the Flash.

But the Thorns could only get one ball in the back of the net, a goal by midfielder Mana Shim in the 38th minute.

“It’s tough when you create so many quality chances and you’re unable to get the go-ahead goal,” Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone said.

Portland came into the afternoon having lost two consecutive matches for the first time this season. With the draw, the Thorns (8-4-3, 27 points) stopped their losing streak and remained in second place in the National Women's Soccer League behind Sky Blue FC (9-3-4, 31 points).

With midfielder Tobin Heath back on the Thorns after spending the first part of the season playing in Europe, the Thorns looked more connected as a unit from the defense through the midfield and up to the strikers. Portland was able to push the ball up the pitch and keep the Flash on their heels.

“Tobin is great,” Cone said. “She helped us so much today. She’s a world-class player. She’s one of the most tactical players and creative players playing the game today. She helps us out a lot out there.”

When the Flash got the ball, they had one objective: get the ball to Wambach.

Heath nearly set up a sensational goal in the 30th minute. She got a pass inside the box and sent a no- look, backward heel pass to Christine Sinclair. The Thorns striker got off a good shot, but she sent it into the chest of Flash goalkeeper Adrianna Franch.

Heath nearly set up another goal in the 35th minute with a fabulous cross into the box to Alex Morgan. The Thorns striker got under the ball, though, and it sailed less than a foot over the crossbar.

Wambach finally got to be too much for the Thorns to handle in the 37th minute.

Flash striker Samantha Kerr put a cross into the box that found Wambach 8 yards out. Wambach fought off her marker, got a clean look at the goal and sent a shot to the top right corner, just inches out of the reach of LeBlanc, to make the score 1-0.

Less than 60 seconds after Wambach’s goal, the Thorns answered.

Sinclair dribbled the ball down the left side. Shim was streaking into the box and got to Sinclair's cross before any of the Flash defenders. As soon as she was on the ball, Shim fired a blistering right-footed shot, and the match was tied 1-1.

“We had some good ball movement,” Shim said. “We made a couple of great passes, 'Sinc’ got in line and played a ball back to me. When you get a ball like that, it’s an easy finish.”

At intermission, each team had nine shots, five on frame.

The Thorns looked to be in control early in the second half. They linked possessions beautifully up the pitch and created dangerous scoring opportunities. The Thorns also were able to play tighter defense against the Flash, cutting off crosses into the box, where Wambach awaited another opportunity.

“Abby can score in so many different ways," Cone said. "Our defense did a pretty good job most of the night.”

Portland narrowly missed an opportunity to score in the 60th minute. Sinclair sent a perfect ball into the box for Heath, who had burst past her defender. With Franch closing in on her, though, Heath had to rush her shot. She pushed it wide left and slammed her hands on the ground in disgust when she saw the ball fly into the stands.

Heath almost scored in the 80th minute, as well. A header from 12 yards was heading for the back of the net before Franch made a leaping save.

In her first match with the Thorns, Heath was surprised she was able to go the distance. She was also disappointed in herself for not finishing some of her opportunities.

“I was shocked that I was able to go 90,” she said. “We were really pushing for the second goal. There were a couple of really nice balls that Sinc played in to me that I could’ve done better with.”

LeBlanc then saved the day with her play on the Wambach PK, drawing a swarm of happy teammates to her as the Rose City Riveters (the Thorns' version of the Portland Timbers Army) roared their approval.

“I don’t react too much to saves, and I definitely reacted to that one,” LeBlanc said. “It was just so much adrenaline. In that moment, to come up with that save at the end of the game, that’s a moment I dreamed of as a child.

"Something got hold of me in that second where I kind of celebrated. I lost my voice on that play.”

The Thorns will be on the road next Sunday to play the Boston Breakers. Shim said that in order for the Thorns to start getting the three points for a win, they will need to put away more of their chances.

“We haven’t been getting the results we’re looking for, but we have been playing much better soccer,” Shim said. “That’s what we’re focusing on. We need to put our opportunities away so we can walk out with a win next week.”