It took 24 games, five months of occasional drama, one torn ACL, one sprained MCL, one mysterious foot injury, and one hell of a final, and now it's official:
Portland Thorns FC are the first ever champions of the National Women's Soccer League.
The championship comes courtesy of an intense, physical 2-0 victory over the Western New York Flash --a game for much of which Thorns were forced to battle down a player-- in front of 9,129 at Sahlen's Stadium in Rochester, NY.
"It's been our goal since the very first day of preseason, to win the championship," Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone said when the team arrived at the Portland airport on Sunday. "I'm just so proud of the women on this team and amazing they are and how they came together. It didn't matter what was thrown at us, we were going to find a way to win."
Seconds after the fulltime whistle blew, you probably could have heard the collective joyous outcry of Thorns fans, who had gathered 600+ strong at the Bagdad Theater and in large groups across the city, and even in a hardy crew that made the trip to Rochester, for miles. But it was the lioness roar let loose by Tobin Heath after she scored the opening goal that really defined the elation surrounding this game.
Because Heath's goal wasn't just a goal --it was an explosion of power, of pure individual brilliance that not only stunned the Flash, it boosted Portland's confidence into the stratosphere.
Here's how it happened: About 37 minutes into the tense, back-and-forth match, Western New York's Amy Barczuk grabbed ahold of Heath's jersey and tugged her to the ground near midfield. The ensuing free kick advanced the ball into Portland's offensive area, and again Western New York committed a foul, setting up another free kick, this time about 35 yards out from the goal.
Heath took charge of the set piece, and as she and Christine Sinclair milled about discussing their strategy for it, you couldn't help but remember the pair's cheeky free kick goal in the July 28 game against Chicago. What did they have up their sleeves this time?
The question better asked: What did Heath have in her sock?
"Tobin wanted [to take the kick], and I was like ‘Do you want me to do anything?'" Sinclair said on Sunday. "And she was like ‘Stand in the wall and try and block the goalkeeper's line of sight. And get out of the way of the ball when it comes.'"
And with that, Heath reared back and, with an injured right foot that she admitted was "less than 80%" absolutely nailed a screaming strike that seemed to curl several times, past the wall, past the hand of outstretched keeper Adrianna Franch, and into the upper corner of the net.
Welcome to golazo city. 1-0, Portland.
Heath's strike was the first of two turning points for the Thorns in this match. The second wasn't quite so fortuitous.
The physicality that lead to that goal was typical of the nature of play in this game, and much of that is tied to the play of the Flash's captain, the 5' 11", muscle-packed Abby Wambach, who also happens to hold the record for most goals scored in international play, ever. Tasked with the job of keeping Wambach in check, Thorns rookie defender Kat Williamson had, in the first two games with WNY, shut the star down. She was doing so in the final as well.
But when the stakes are raised, so are Wambach's cagey tactics --her prowling, shoving, initiating contact, diving (pretty sure we all agree her flop after tussling with the 5' 4" Mana Shim was epically mortifying) and cajollng referees for calls all gets raised to championship level.
And so finally, at the 49th minute, referee Kari Seitz pulled out a yellow card after Williamson cut Wambach off as she was on the verge of a 1-v-1 with Thorns keeper Karina LeBlanc. Even though Williamson was the one sporting a bloody lip when she and Wambach untangled, it looked awfully close to a clear path foul, so in some ways Williamson was lucky at that point not to be sent packing. Was the second yellow, doled out by Seitz seven minutes later for an off-the-ball collision between Wambach and Williamson, a makeup call? Was it the logical consequence of Wambach's gamesmanship? It didn't really matter --Williamson's night was done.
But the rest of the Thorns still had about 40 minutes to go. That's an eternity when you're staring down the double barrell of Wambach and Carli Lloyd, on a team that's pressing ever more urgently for an equalizer.
On Sunday, Sinclair was pretty clear about how the team knew they would hold. "We knew we had it," After Kat got her red card I told her, ‘Don't worry, we got you. We got you.'"
She was right. They played it perfectly.
Just before the red card, Parlow Cone had given Thorns star forward Alex Morgan --forced to take on a backup role due to injury-- some final instructions and checked her in as a sub. But the coach was forced to pull Morgan back, instead switching defender Tina Ellertson in for Heath, allowing the veteran (and very tall) defender to take the empty spot on backline. Ellertson, let's not forget, has been with the Thorns for about a month, only three weeks or so of that in training proper. She played admirably, not getting fancy, but effectively stopping the Flash charge and clearing the ball.
LeBlanc, meantime, staved off 18 shots, seven on goal, including a 66-minute header from Lloyd that the keeper punched up and over the crossbar.
"I'm just so proud of this backline," Sinclair said. "I mean, Western New York could still be out there trying to score on is."
When asked on Sunday what was going through her mind during the harried minutes of defending down a player, LeBlanc replied, simply, "Stop the ball." And the Thorns not only hunkered down, they returned fire. Well, technically they only returned two second-half shots. But still, as the minutes kept ticking by, the Thorns alternated superbly between simply clearing the ball and controlling it for a countering sojourn upfield.
Finally, as the team tried to chip away at the excruciating five minutes of extra time, one of those sojourns paid off. About two minutes into the extra, when Morgan received throw-in, she turned and saw a wide-open Sinclair headed toward the goal. Morgan slipped her frontline comrade a pass, and Sinc did the rest. She was 1-v-1 with Franch and, while Sinclair may have missed a few of those during the regular season, she doesn't miss those in finals. She calmly slotted the ball home. 2-0, Thorns. Sinclair's face bursts into a smile and she raised her arms and pointed to the small but vocal contingent of Rose City Riveters who held down that end of the stadium. Morgan jumped on her teammate, her wounded leg momentarily forgotten. The rest of the team followed suit.
Until, in the true fashion of a captain, Sinclair's face dropped back into beast mode. She held up five fingers --five more minutes-- and the team got back to work.
But it was over. Welcome to Championship City.
After month of injuries, slumps and, some would say underachievement, the Thorns emphatically removed the question marks surrounding their season and replaced them exclamation points. Fitting that, it might have been the only match of the season in which all five of the team's much-heralded marquee players--Tobin Heath with that laser of a goal, Christine Sinclair with that much needed insurance tally, Karina LeBlanc with a shutout, Rachel Buehler leading a defense tasked with stopping Abby Wambach and a red-hot Carli Lloyd, and Alex Morgan who, although playing on half a knee, providing a crucial assist-- all played huge roles.
Fitting too that their captain, when asked on Sunday about the team's ambitions for next season, was her usual direct self: "Do it all over again," she said. "That's the plan."