She wasn’t charming, and she wasn’t particularly flashy, except for one crucial moment. But the Portland Thorns went on — as they did through every challenge on and off the field throughout the 2022 season — to earn their third NWSL Championship for the club with a 2-0 victory over the Kansas City Current on Saturday at Audi Stadium in Washington, DC.
With the win, Portland stands alone at the top of the NFL with the top three league titles. Lifting the cup on Saturday confirmed that Portland is the league class to come out of its first decade of existence. Ryan Wilkinson led the Thorns to the title in her first year as head coach — the second female coach to do so in NWSL history, joining Cindy Parlow Cone, who she also won with Thorns in 2013.
“I’m so proud of this group of women who took a year, and we’re going to leave it at that,” Wilkinson said. “The way they looked today, I thought the first half was a bit tense. We got that early goal, which was helpful, but I thought they were great and I’m a very proud coach today.”
The title comes as Thorns, and the league as a whole, are dealing with issues of misconduct and abuse in the wake of the launch of the US Soccer team investigation, and the upcoming league/player association investigation.
“You could easily fall apart as a team, kind of lose touch with each other, and they really chose to band together,” Wilkinson said. “This year was a continuation of that. Through the hardships, they were really connected in a very special way. Today was not about doing anything extra, and that was the sweet thing. It was about showing up and playing with real joy. And we did.”
Under the bright lights of the nation’s capital, Thorns scored early in the treadmill of MVP Sophia Smith’s league goal, netting his second in a brutal second-half foul of the stream that led to an own goal.
First, it was the boos heard all over the football world. And in the fourth minute, Smith got rid of her observers and tackled Kansas City goalkeeper A.D. French, putting the ball into the net easily.
Then she shrugged her shoulders toward the crowd as if to say, “Did you expect anything else?”
“There were a lot of people who thought I didn’t deserve to win MVP,” Smith said. So, that’s a bit of, ‘That’s all. “
The remainder of the match was a grind for both teams. Portland firmly maintained their 1-0 advantage, making a set of dangerous kicks but didn’t really threaten to make it 2-0 in the first half. Smith and Wessman Ryan and Morgan Weaver had chances, but they either missed the frame or were easily saved by Franch.
Meanwhile, the current was unable to decode Thorns’ backline.
Kansas City had no shots in the first half. Her only chance in the first 45 was a header from Kate Del Vava in the 34th minute that passed over the bar and was not recorded in the stats sheet. Other than that moment, the Portland defense was in control, led by the founding play of veterans Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Klingenberg.
“This is a complete leader team,” Wilkinson said. “We have great icons of the game on the field. …just see them come up and play different roles. We knew KC[City]and their biggest threat was transformation. I’ve seen[Sauerbrunn’s]leadership and how they were talking, and you’ll see Kelli Hubly learn from it and from behind. Bella Bixby. I thought (Klingenberg) had a great game, Natu (Natalia Kuikka), Sam Coffey. All six of us showed up, what a great year for them and they made me proud tonight.”
Thorns led 1-0 at the end of the first half. They doubled it at the start of the second half thanks to some unique and favorable conditions.
In the 56th minute, Ryan crossed for Smith. Although Smith missed it, the current mishandled it in a dangerous space and ended up having an own goal to put Forks in a 2-0 lead.
Weaver nearly made it 3-0 in the 59th minute, as he put a powerful shot into the frame that forced Franch to jump.
“I’m very proud of the team,” Smith said. “Everyone stepped up, played their part really well. Take care of what they need to take care of. It was honestly just a fun game to play in. Not every game is that fun. Some games are just grinding, but this one was fun. I felt the energy coming from everyone. We felt confident. And we were satisfied.”
Portland brought in substitutes Hina Sugita and Janine Pique in the 63rd minute to replace Rocky Rodriguez Weaver. Kansas City’s struggles continued regardless of the field workers, and Portland remained the only team to pose any real threat with the ball at their feet.
Bixby has maintained a steady presence in goal as well, as she has been all season.
“It’s been a tough year for Portland,” Bixby said. “There were a lot of outside distractions for us and for that to be what we achieved this year means a lot to us. We know the City of Portland wanted us to bring it home to them. And we did. We are very happy to bring the trophy to them.”
Crystal Dunn entered Portland’s place in the 73rd minute, replacing Christine Sinclair. Dunn received raucous cheers from fans on both sides as she took to the pitch at the Audi Stadium.
The Thorns maintained their form for the rest of the match, making it to the finish line before they stormed the field, shouting and embracing each other in celebration. Through all the pain and uncertainty of this season, Portland has added another piece of hardware to its shining and ever-growing wardrobe.
“It’s a beautiful ending,” Thorns general manager Karina LeBlanc told The Oregonian/OregonLive, enjoying the cheers pouring down from Rose City Riders who made the cross-country trip from Portland. “In preparing for the season, we said we want to win, but we want to win the right way. What this team did was they won the right way. It was all this year, they were like, ‘Let’s keep it tight. Let’s keep it up. Let’s put ourselves down.'” First, that’s what they did.
“They stuck to the process and stuck to their identity. Today, they played with their identity.”
— Ryan Clark reports in Washington, D.C.
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