Today is October 29. This is the day every NWSL fan has been waiting for — a chance to see their team play in the championship. This is the day when the Portland Thorns may be crowned champions for the third time in their history.
The last time this club claimed the NWSL Championship trophy, it was 2017. In a rough match in Orlando, they beat North Carolina Courage and raised the second cup of their history. 2018 gave the Thorns an opportunity to be back-to-back champions, but the Courage took revenge and left Portland heartbroken with a 0-3 defeat in a packed Providence Park. Crystal Dunn, who scored the goal that gave Portland the ticket to the 2022 final, was part of that mighty Courage team.
Crystal already has two championships cups under her belt, both with NC. The same can be said about Becky Sauerbrunn, winning the title twice with the FC Kansas City. Christine Sinclair is the third player with the same amount of accolades on the team. Will they be able to raise their third?
These are the moments worth fighting for— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) October 28, 2022
There is nothing like lifting that trophy. Tomorrow night we play for this moment in primetime. pic.twitter.com/jWhqGLTE17
Funny enough, the two times the Thorns claimed a Championship trophy, it was not at home. In 2013, they raised the cup in Rochester, New York, and in 2017 they did so at Orlando Pride’s home field in Florida. Today the final will be played at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. Should we take that as a good sign?
Well, this season has been sweet for Portland when playing away from home. They only lost once when playing away and have scored 22 goals, the most of any team in the league, finishing their 11 away games without being shutout.
Portland has shown to have a great attacking depth, but what about their defense? I think we haven’t talked much about the big blow that represented losing Emily Menges mid-season. The veteran has been the rock Portland needed in defense for almost nine years. Despite that, Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelli Hubly paired up to be one of the best centerback duos in the league. The Thorns’ backline finished the season with nine shutouts, tied for the league lead, and conceded 24 goals, the third-fewest in the NWSL.
We could write a lot about the team’s stats: They have broken some records this year, but some things cannot be measured. It was a difficult year for Portland, but that is not news. No matter what, however, this team proved to be strong enough to get up, over and over again, regardless of how banged up they were.
Really, though: How do you measure Kelli Hubly’s journey? How do you measure that Christine Sinclair keeps leading the Thorns at 39 years old? How do you measure that Crystal Dunn gave birth to baby Marcel 156 days ago and last Sunday scored a banger to provide Portland with the ticket for the Championship final?
And, leaving the veterans aside, we haven’t talked enough about Olivia Moultrie and her contributions to the team, even though she hasn’t played much this season. Taylor Porter, another player who has not played much, has also contributed with a lot this year. We also haven’t talked enough about Yazmeen Ryan, who started against San Diego in the semifinal. She won that starting spot, and she has been the revelation player this year. Speaking of the youngsters, I think we don’t remember often enough how young Sophia Smith — newly crowned NWSL MVP — is because her soccer IQ and talent are beyond her years.
Portland has been dealing with heavy off-the-field matters for two seasons now and the team could’ve easily dropped in quality. The fact that Mark Parsons isn’t there anymore could’ve been another valid reason — but these players know who are they playing for and the history and culture of the club. So, far from using the off-the-field matters as an excuse, they used it as a stepping stone to keep growing.
Coach Rhian Wilkinson put it very well in the prematch press conference:
“I know that this is a group that last season could’ve easily come apart and actually gone their individual ways, but chose as a team to come together to get even stronger through a lot of the adversity that was focused on Portland, and it happened again this year [...]. I’m very grateful that the team itself chose to really connect over this and that our connection as a team, as a group, got even stronger.”
You could see in the players’ faces what it meant to win last Sunday with everything that was — and is — going on. To win that game in the dying minutes was ... something epic. But the Thorns know that they haven’t won anything yet, that the biggest test will happen in just a few hours, and against a worthy opponent, a humble team. Let’s not think Kansas City is an underdog. No, that will be a mistake. Portland knows that, and AD Franch will be in goal to remind them.
It will be a battle; two teams with two different styles. But at the end of the 90 minutes, when the final whistle blows and the crowds go silent, the players will remember that — win it or lose it — it was just another game. A big one, yes, but a game in the end. So they have to remember to have fun, because playing a final is a privilege and they owe it to themselves to enjoy it.
As captain Christine Sinclair put it: “We’re playing a game for a living. If you’re not having fun, what’s the point?”
Do not miss Portland Thorns vs Kansas City Current at 5 p.m. Pacific on CBS and Paramount+ for U.S. fans and Twitch for international fans.