Providence Park was electric Saturday night. It may not have been a packed stadium, but the fans were in good voice at the beginning of the match and it only got louder as the Portland Thorns performed wonderfully in the Women’s International Champions Cup final.
Portland Thorns versus seven-time UEFA Champions League winners Olympique Lyonnais was a long-awaited matchup between two of the biggest women’s soccer brands in the world. The match lived up to the hype. It was back and forth, both teams had plenty of chances, there was controversy, and there was a late winner.
The Thorns lifted their second trophy in front of the Rose City Riveters, and it was Morgan Weaver who made the difference again. She stepped up to the spot to secure the winning penalty in the shootout to clinch the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup. On Saturday, Weaver came on in the 82nd minute after not playing since she was injured on July 18.
Back with a bang is an understatement. Weaver came on and immediately got on the end of a Sophia Smith pass. She curled it over the bar but she reminded Thorns fans of what they had been missing. Weaver solidified that thought when she used her body to bring down a Christen Westphal lofted pass. The touch took Weaver end line, around Lyon goalkeeper Christiane Endler. Weaver shot toward the far post across the goal line. Amandine Henry slid in a desperate effort to keep the ball from crossing the line but couldn’t.
Weaver took off, arms extended to the sky, jumping exuberantly. She was mobbed by her teammates and the Thorns were crowned WICC champions for the first time. It was a mesmerizing night in Providence Park and, of course, there were plenty of things to take away from the final and the tournament as a whole.
“She’s Here, She’s There, She’s Every-F***-ing-where, Natu, Natu”
If you are a soccer fan in the U.S., you have definitely heard of or are completely obsessed with Apple TV’s Ted Lasso. At the end of season one and in the fifth episode of season two, a fictional AFC Richmond legend is serenaded with a hilarious song. It goes, “He’s here, he’s there, he’s every-f***ing-where, Roy Kent, Roy Kent.”
The chant is extremely catchy, and, with the popularity of the show, I expected it to catch on in stadiums around America. It hasn’t, but maybe it should after the WICC performance of Natalia Kuikka. Kuikka has transitioned to the NWSL well after she joined the Thorns during a difficult situation with the COVID-19 pandemic and the world in quarantine.
When Kuikka arrived in Portland, Mark Parsons and his coaching staff worked with the defender, transitioning her from her typical center back position to right back. She trained at right back all preseason but when the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup arrived, the Thorns were short on center backs thanks to injury and an international break.
Kuikka slotted into her natural position and when the U.S. internationals returned she went back out wide to right back. She faced some minor stumbling blocks and growing pains as she transitioned to life as a full back.
As the season has progressed, Kuikka has become a feature at right back in the Thorns’ best eleven. She has grown into the position and made it her own. Kuikka has great positional awareness and one-versus-one defending which helped her make the switch to full back. She also benefits from this role because it allows her to get forward and show off her ability with the ball at her feet, her range of passing and her ferocious shot.
Ayer no hablamos demasiado de esto: Natu Kuikka fue elegida la Jugadora de WICC. Desde el 2020 no para de recoger reconocimientos. Mejor jugadora de FIN 2020, mejor defensora de la liga sueca 2020 y ahora la mejor de la WICC. RB, MF, pedilo y lo tenéshttps://t.co/oeJKRT9eVX— Thorns en Español (@PTFCes) August 22, 2021
Kuikka has impressed all season and has quickly become a fan favorite. She will be even more beloved after her performance in the WICC. Kuikka started the WICC semifinal against the Houston Dash but she didn’t do so at right back or center back.
Parsons was juggling a packed schedule, injuries, and the absence/minutes restrictions for the players returning from the Olympics. Because of this, Kuikka was moved up the pitch into midfield. She played the full 90 minutes as one of the dual eights in Parsons’ 4-4-2 diamond. She played the box-to-box role well and was integral to the Thorns in defense and attack. In fact, Kuikka scored her first-ever Thorns goal with a brilliant header off of an Olivia Moultrie corner kick.
The Finnish international slid back into the defense at right back for the WICC final against Lyon. She played the full match again. But she only played 45 minutes at right back. Becky Sauerbrunn, who had just returned from the Olympics, was subbed off at halftime. Westphal came on for her and went to right back and Kuikka slid over to fill the center back position that Sauerbrunn vacated.
Kuikka had the third-most touches of any Portland player, forced Endler into a diving save, made two tackles and won three fouls. She also made multiple crucial interventions and recoveries to stifle Lyon’s world-class attacking contingent. The ‘Finnish’ army knife was here, she was there, she was every-f***ing-where and she was awarded the Golden Ball for being the best player in the tournament. Kuikka has been integral to the Thorns’ success and has been the most influential addition to the team so far this season. She will continue to grow and improve, which should worry the other nine NWSL clubs.
The Finnish international is levelheaded, soft-spoken and a perfectionist. She will do whatever she needs to do to help the team while scrutinizing every performance in order to keep improving. Kuikka has thrived in Portland this season and has etched herself into Thorns’ history as the player of the tournament in the Thorns’ first-ever WICC title.
The Future is now in Olivia Moultrie and Sophia Smith
One Thorns player in each of the team’s WICC matches stepped up and carried the majority of the offensive load. In the first match, it was none other than 15-year-old Olivia Moultrie. She played the full 90 minutes and was instrumental to the Thorns’ two-goal comeback. Moultrie took four shots (tied for first in the match with Rachel Daly) and created a game-high five chances. The midfielder completed 92.9% of her passes and bossed the midfield.
She had the opportunity to score multiple times in the first half. Moultrie mis-hit two Smith cutbacks that both could have yielded goals. In the second half, she was more efficient. Moultrie put an in-swinging corner into the box in the 51st minute. Kuikka got on the end of it and the Thorns halved the Dash’s lead.
One minute later, it looked like Moultrie was about to score her first professional goal. She passed to Westphal around the halfway line. Westphal drove into the final third and Moultrie made a late run out of midfield into the 18-yard box. Westphal put the ball on Moultrie’s forehead and Moultrie put her header off the post.
Moultrie didn’t have to wait too much longer for her first professional goal after coming agonizingly close. Marissa Everett won a foul and Moultrie placed the ball and stood over it. Madison Pogarch ran over, gave her a pep talk and patted her on the shoulder. The whistle blew and Moultrie curled her free kick over the head of Jasmyne Spencer and down past Amanda Dennis.
Regulation concluded without any more goals and the match would be decided by penalty kicks. Moultrie was given the responsibility and, to no one’s surprise after her dominant performance, she stepped up and converted.
The Thorns played Olympique Lyonnais in the final and in this match Smith was the one leaving defenses in shambles. Her runs in behind the defense were devastating throughout the match. She gave one of the best defenders of all time, Wendie Renard, headaches all night.
Smith was all over the pitch and found great success running in behind Renard and at Kysha Sylla. Smith and the Thorns targeted the 17-year-old defender who was subbed off eventually. Even with the change, Lyon struggled to slow Smith. She found space to shoot and forced Endler into multiple saves. She repeatedly got a step on her defender and was able to swing crosses behind the Lyon defense.
In the 70th minute, Smith got to the end line and faced up to Janice Cayman. A moment later Cayman was turning as she watched the ball go through her legs while Smith ran onto it. Smith did not get the goal contribution her performance deserved but she probably should have been awarded multiple penalty kicks and put Weaver through on goal.
The performance of these two players, who are 15 and 21, demonstrated just how well the Thorns have set themselves up for long term success. There were wonderful performances from many Portland players throughout this tournament but the way these two players shouldered the offensive responsibility in a semifinal and a final was extremely impressive and hopefully something we will see in Providence Park for a long, long time.
An Amazing, Fun Team Performance
Everyone had a part to play during this tournament. Twenty-three players featured for the Thorns during these two matches. Hogan made her professional debut and Raisa Strom-Okimoto and Meaghan Nally made their first starts for the club.
The team scored three goals during the tournament. Kuikka scored her first Thorns goal, Moultrie scored her first professional goal, and Weaver notched her first goal in Providence Park.
There were great individual performances all across the pitch - like that of Angela Salem in the WICC final (don’t worry that is getting its own piece). But the individual performances were not as impressive as how the Portland Thorns played as a unit throughout the tournament.
Obviously, winning shines a positive light on everything. This light is probably brightened by me making my first trip to Providence Park, but the WICC in Portland was an absolute blast. There were 15 goals across four matches and each match was highly competitive and extremely entertaining.
Portland Thorns FC have lifted their second trophy in Providence Park this season and the team put in a massive performance in the comeback against Houston and an even more impressive display against the seven-time champions of Europe. It was delightful. It was wonderful. Now it’s time to refocus and turn to the league. There is still an NWSL Shield to win and the race for it is heating up. Here’s to seeing more performances like we did the WICC in the league as this team rounds into peak form in search of the Shield and the NWSL Championship. Two trophies down. Two to go.