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“One giant heartbeat”: What it was like on the ground at the NWSL Semifinal

Two STF writers share their stories from Sunday’s epic NWSL Semifinal.

San Diego Wave FC v Portland Thorns - Semifinal: 2022 NWSL Championship Photo by Amanda Loman/Getty Images

Last Sunday’s NWSL semifinal was one of the most incredible games Providence Park has ever witnessed. Against the backdrop of perhaps the most tumultuous period the club has ever witnessed, the Portland Thorns advanced to the 2022 NWSL Championship in the most dramatic of fashions, punctuated by an unbelievable world-class game-winning goal from Crystal Dunn.

Stumptown Footy contributors extraordinaire Wilder Isom and Alex Barnes were on the ground in the stands for the game. Here’s their thoughts and stories from that magical afternoon:

Wilder Isom: I went into Sunday feeling a little bit apprehensive. I was worried that the attention wouldn’t be on the players and the positives, but instead that it would be on those in power who didn’t deserve any attention on this day. I was thinking the energy just might not be coming from the right place.

I was very wrong and I was truly very happy to be wrong. The fans came out in droves in such a positive way to make what was definitely the most exciting game I have been to in all my time here in Portland.

Wilder’s view of the semifinal.

Alex Barnes: I personally wasn’t sure what the atmosphere was going to be on my way to the stadium, but any anxiety or concerns were immediately alleviated when I got to my seat. It felt like the entire fanbase was on the exact same page about the task at hand, which was to support the world-class players whom we’re privileged enough to watch play for our club in our city.

I brought two friends who had never been to a Timbers or Thorns game with me and watching them take in the Providence Park atmosphere at its best was a very cool moment for me. In the most difficult period in the club’s history I felt proud to be Rose City ‘Til I Die.

San Diego Wave FC v Portland Thorns - Semifinal: 2022 NWSL Championship
Fans welcomed the Thorns with cheers and signs of encouragement on Sunday.
Photo by Amanda Loman/Getty Images

AB: There was a real excitement in the air after the game kicked off fueled by several Thorns attacks down the wings that were cut out inside the box at the last second.

Then boom. Completely against the run of play Alex Morgan whips a beautiful cross into the box and Taylor Kornieck plants a header past Bella Bixby. I was stunned. It felt like all of the air had been sucked out of the stadium — but only for a brief moment because the Riveters were right back to pounding their drums and belting out chants.

WI: The energy, as expected, was definitely dampened when San Diego scored in the eighth minute — but it didn’t totally evaporate. Overall, this game had more energy than most of the regular season games I attended, so even after going down a goal the fans didn’t give up.

I was hoping going into half that we could pull something back. So when I tell you, dear reader, that I destroyed my voice screaming so loud for Rocky’s goal I’m not kidding. That was a picture-perfect goal, the kind you really only get once in your career, and for Rocky to score that goal then was phenomenal.

AB: To use a cliché, Rocky’s goal blew the non-existent roof off of Providence Park. The only other moment in PTFC history that I can compare that sweet, sweet half-volley to in terms of noise and fan limbs was Felipe Mora’s goal at the death of MLS Cup 2021.

I was lucky enough to be sitting in the corner of the stadium closest to the goal and ensuing celebrations, and when I tell you I hurt my voice celebrating I’m not lying. It was truly a magical moment in a place that has seen many of them.

WI: The vibes at 1-1 were honestly really fun. Both teams were very evenly matched for a bit, and the stadium was such a fun atmosphere after the equalizer. There was a lull on the field right before the half but overall great soccer.

The second half was also very even, but both teams seemed to lack any apparent want to score — which was surprising for a semifinal Thorns game. The energy wasn’t dampened for long though…

AB: The Wave had a few moments where they could have retaken the lead in the first half, but once the second half started it was one-way Thorns traffic. Morgan Weaver had a brilliant chance to make it 2-1 in the 78th minute following an inch-perfect through ball from Sophia Smith, who herself could have scored a few minutes later on a layoff from Weaver. Pressure was definitely building around the stadium and it felt like we were heading for a nervy extra time and penalties.

WI: I was starting to think about extra time for sure. As a player you know how much these ladies were putting into the game and just how draining an extra thirty minutes can be. And everyone knows what follows that — penalty kicks. As a former goalie, I was dreading the stress of a penalty shootout.

AB: But then Crystal Dunn happened.

WI: I leaned over to my friend and said, “You know… I’d really love a Dunn game-winner.” Did I manifest the goal? Sure, I’d love to take credit… but I know truly that I can’t, that was all the magic of soccer.

Ugh, the stadium absolutely lost it… I can’t begin to describe it. Anyone who watches soccer (most of the people reading this I expect — hi Mom!) knows the feeling of a game-winning goal. A game-winning goal in the last few minutes of a game? Brilliant. A game-winning goal in a semifinal match when the goal scorer gave birth just 5 months ago? Nothing better honestly.

Crystal Dunn is phenomenal.

AB: Yes Crystal Dunn, the woman who gave birth just 156 days before the match, hammered home an un-savable strike to send the Thorns to the NWSL Championship game.

Remember what I said about the atmosphere following Rocky’s goal? Amplify that by about five times — and I’m not even sure that would be enough to describe the feeling. I was at a loss for words when the ball hit the back of the net, and to be honest with you I still am now.

How can you describe in writing a moment that was so visceral? So impassioned? It truly felt as though the entire stadium was connected in that one moment — like one giant heartbeat on SW Morrison Street.

WI: I’ve been following this team for years now and as a sports fan and a woman I can’t imagine how these ladies are feeling. These women are tough. I can’t imagine being in their position, and obviously we can all try to sympathize, but to play at that level and not have support from the institution around you must have been so hard.

AB: When Crystal Dunn subbed into the match one of my friends turned to me and said “If she scores, the headline should be ‘The Portland Thorns: Not Dunn Yet!’” And while I may or may not have rolled my eyes at his suggestion at the time (I definitely did), I think that perfectly encapsulates how I feel about the Thorns’ season. They aren’t done yet.

They deserved that win and that atmosphere, and everyone knows that the big prize is still on the table. But no matter how their season ends, I want to reiterate how proud I was to be able to experience that shining moment that broke through the dark cloud hovering over soccer in Portland.

WI: In the end, I am so proud to be a Thorns fan and to also be in the position I am where my voice can be heard. The way the fans and supporters have rallied around the team and the players has been awe-inspiring and honestly a beacon of hope at a time when this sport has kind of been a bummer. Overall, I’m proud of this city and this team and I look forward to the championship! Let’s go for that third star baby!

AB: In the words of Rhian Wilkinson, “It’s a new dawn.” Now let’s go win number three.