2016 was a historic year for women's soccer and the Portland Thorns.
A women's soccer league reached its fourth season for the first time ever in the United States, with a beautiful upwards trend in attendance, and some amazing soccer. Although there still isn't a big push in advertisement of investment from Head Commissioner Jeff Plush, the league is consider by many as one of the most competitive leagues in the world. A tenth team and the second expansion, Orlando Pride, flourished. NWSL moments made the news, and the games that made it on TV had some solid numbers. The YouTube videos of games have anywhere between 8000 and 70,000 views, a tribute to the international excitement about the beautiful game. As 2016 draws to a close, I wanted to celebrate all of this through a good old fashioned listicle.
The Thorns had one of their best seasons to date, winning the Supporter's Shield and playing some pretty awesome soccer throughout the six months of the season, and that deserves to be celebrated. Although many Thorns supporters were disappointed by the post-season, where the Thorns lost to the eventual champions, Western New York Flash, I think 2016 was a good season for the team. Here are 10 moments and things that really made the 2016 season stand out as a winner for me.
#10 - Double the games against Seattle meant double the excitement
Some NWSL clubs don't have much luck with their rivalry teams, but the Thorns playing Seattle as often as they did really brought out the best in their games. With seven international players missing in late July, the Thorns were still able to eek out a victory from their long-standing opponents. The stadium, which was packed with more than 19000 fans, came alive for the Thorns, cheering them on in the hard-won victory. "That’s Portland. Soccer City, USA. Rain or shine, national team players or not, [the fans are] going to show up and support us," midfielder Mana Shim said in her post-game interview. "I get the chills even thinking about it because we needed them, too. It was the best atmosphere we’ve had, and I think that drove us, honestly, when we got the goal and after that, especially, just holding the lead. It was incredible." The Thorns were so well matched against Seattle this season, and it made their rivalry games a treat for Thorns and Seattle supporters alike.
#9 - Thorns attendance remains legendary
Following Mana Shim's quote about the fans, who support their team rain or shine, I think its important to point out the Thorns attendance. Although the Thorns have been unseated as the "most attendance ever" by a team that has a stadium with more capacity (Orlando Pride’s Camping World Stadium has a maximum capacity of 65,000), Portland still holds onto a highest average attendance at almost double the next team. Portland's legendary attendance comes in part from a dedicated support group -- the Rose City Riveters. A Supporters group like that should never be underrated, and their impact in helping promote and celebrate women's soccer and the Thorns in Portland really makes playing in the city a treat. The Thorns aren’t the only team that benefit from the Riveters excitement — many opposing teams, most notably Sky Blue, have cited the Riveters as their favorite thing about playing in Providence Park.
#8 - NWSL recognized some Thorny excellence
One of the coolest elements of the 2016 season was definitely the fact that Thorns Players dominated the Player of the Month spots- for the six months spanning the NWSL, four months went to Thorns players. First, Tobin Heath was recognized for her amazing assists (three in two games) in April. Then Christine Sinclair was awarded the title for both June and August. In June, she tallied three goals and one assist and in August she was celebrated for her amazing contribution to Team Canada in the Olympics: she scored three goals and kept the team motivated and together. Sinclair also "played every minute of the five matches she played at the Olympics and only missed the final encounter of the group stage against Germany – with Canada having already qualified for the knockout stages," according the NWSL press release. And then finally, Allie Long won Player of the Month in September as she scored five goals in four games.
#7 - That Allie Long- Tobin Heath connection
Talking about Allie Long, the Thorns midfielder cited one of the reasons for her win of the NWSL player of the month was her special relationship with fellow midfielder Tobin Heath. That Allie Long-Tobin Heath Connection -- also known as the Harry connection — was really something about this season. It created a dynamic midfield that made the Thorns truly unstoppable during the second half of the season. The two national team players, who have played together since their time in the US National u20s Team, and are two staples of the Portland Thorns, really had an amazing second half of the season. Allie Long, who has been a Thorns player since 2013 and is one of the Thorns most consistent players, really had an outstanding year. She won player of the month in September largely due to her amazing teamwork with Heath, who she affectionately refers to as “Harry.” In an interview in 2015, Long praised Heath, explaining that "every time [Heath] gets the ball I know something special is going to happen,” and it looks like their connection continued to bring them some really special moments in 2016.
#6 - The Championship Semi-Final (from hell) on October 2nd
This game!!!!! Turn on FS1 to catch the end if you haven't already.— Alex Morgan (@alexmorgan13) October 2, 2016
It may be strange to consider a loss as one of the best moments for the Thorns, but the semi-final game on October 2nd was really amazing. Excelle Sport called it “the thrilling NWSL game that garnered more soccer fans,” and they were not wrong. US Women National Team soccer players talked about the game all over social media, giving the championship game an intense amount of buzz. But it’s not on this list for the buzz it created — the game showed the strength, determination and spirit of the Thorns. Not only did it clinch the spot as most exciting game of the season; It also showcased Portland's grit, the Thorns' intense support, and some truly exciting soccer. Many Thorns fans left the match with tears in their eyes, and watching Tobin Heath mourn the loss on the field was really something terrible, but soccer is strange sometimes, and we can’t wait for the 2017 season to get that win back.
#5 - The most solid backline in the NWSL
Despite the high score of that championship match, the Portland Thorns actually had an amazing year when it came to a defense. The team, which usually went with a four back, tallied the 2016 season with 0.95 ratio of goals to goals allowed and with a goals against average of only 0.89. With amazing defenders like Menges and Reynolds really putting in the hours to make their team solid and stable, the Thorns backline definitely deserved to be showered with roses at every opportunity.
#4 - Cashing in those wins
Portland had the longest winning streak of the 2016 NWSL season not once, but twice during the 2016 season. First, in June 17 to July 2, which included two road wins and a beautiful game against the Chicago Red Stars, where the Thorns won 2-0 off some great maneuvering from Sinclair. The second winning streak, from September 4 and September 25, was a series of wonderful home wins that gave the Portland Thorns the final push to their shield win. With their 5-1 game against Boston, the Thorns looked unstoppable, and they kept that momentum for a month of 4-0-0, which really does look beautiful written out like that.
#3 - Those sweet Tobin Heath assists
Heath created a new NWSL records for the most assists in a single season, and there is no doubt that her awesome play-making allowed for such a great Thorns season. Looking at summary gifs of those 10 assists, one can note see how many of those are from set pieces. Heath’s ability to shoot incredibly accurate balls, even from an incredibly range, has never been a secret, but this year was really the year that the Thorns were able to use her as the deadly weapon she really is.
#2 - The Thorns unbeaten streak
12 games unbeaten! This is the second longest unbeaten streak in NWSL history, and holding onto the streak lead to one of the Thorn's best games of the season against Orlando. Mark Parsons cited this game's win to the team wanting to keep this streak, and their ability to rally together at the 80th minute was really something spectacular. With seven of those twelve games being road wins or draws, it really was some great moments for a really great teams.
#1 - ending the season on top with that shield
Winning the supporters shield in The Portland Thorns we were the first team to have won both the championship and the supporters shield in different years (though WNYF winning the championship made them the second to win that honor). Although the myth that holding the shield leaves the team cursed for the Championship game persisted when the team lost, it doesn’t stop the fact that the Thorns ended the 2016 season as the best.
When winning the Canadian Player of the Year, Sinclair said one of the things she was most excited about soccer in the year 2017 was that she could finally play a full season for the Thorns again. With the new coach and the Olympics, there have been many shake-ups, but 2016 was an amazing year for the Thorns, and I can’t wait for 2017 to bring more excitement. With the draft just around the corner, and the darkest days of winter past us, its hard not to start getting excited for 2017. The Thorns have a beautiful track record, and I can’t wait to see what the 2017 season brings.