It wasn’t glamorous, and save for a single, defining moment it wasn’t particularly flashy, either. But the Portland Thorns persisted — as they did through every on- and off-field challenge throughout the 2022 season — to earn the club’s third NWSL championship with a 2-0 win over the Kansas City Current on Saturday at Audi Field in Washington, D.C.
With the win, Portland stands alone atop the NWSL with a league-best three titles. Ever the late-season contender, Saturday’s hoisting of the trophy affirmed Portland as the class of the league as it emerges from its first decade of existence. And Rhian Wilkinson led the Thorns to a title in her first year as head coach — just the second female head coach to do it in NWSL history, joining Cindy Parlow Cone, who also won it with the Thorns in 2013.
“I’m so proud of this group of women who had a year, and we’ll just leave it at that,” Wilkinson said. “The way they showed up today, I thought the first half was a little nervy. We got that early goal, which was helpful, but I thought they were fantastic and I’m a very proud coach today.”
The title comes while the Thorns, and the league as a whole, navigate issues of misconduct and abuse in the wake of the U.S. Soccer investigation’s release, and that of the forthcoming league/players’ association investigation.
“You could so easily break apart as a team, and sort of lose connection with one another, and they really chose to come together,” Wilkinson said. “This year has been a continuation of that. Through the hardships, they were really connected in a way that’s very special. Today was not about doing anything extra, and that was the beautiful thing. It was about showing up and playing with a real joy. And we did.”
Beneath the bright lights in the nation’s capital, the Thorns scored early on a grinder of a goal from league MVP Sophia Smith, notching their second on a brutal mistake in the second half by the Current that led to an own goal.
First, it was the shrug heard ‘round the soccer world. In the fourth minute, Smith shed her marker and shook off Kansas City goalkeeper A.D. Franch, putting the ball in the back of the net with ease.
She then shrugged toward the crowd as if to say, “Did you expect anything else?”
“There’s been a lot of people who think I don’t deserve to win MVP,” Smith said postgame. “So, that’s a little bit of, ‘That’s that.’”
The remainder of the match was a grind for both teams. Portland held on strongly to its 1-0 advantage, making a handful of dangerous runs but never truly threatening to make it 2-0 in the first half. Smith, Yazmeen Ryan and Morgan Weaver each had chances, but they either missed the frame or were saved easily by Franch.
The Current, meanwhile, were unable to crack the code of the Thorns’ back line.
Kansas City had zero shots in the first half. Its only chance in the first 45 was a header from Kate Del Fava in the 34th minute that went over the crossbar and did not register in the stat sheet. Other than that moment, Portland’s defense was dominant, led by the foundational play of veterans Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg.
“This is a leader-full team,” Wilkinson said. “We have incredible icons of the game on the field. … You just see them show up and play different roles. We knew Kansas (City), their big threat was going to be transition. You saw (Sauerbrunn’s) leadership and how she was talking, and you see Kelli Hubly learning from her and Bella Bixby behind. I thought (Klingenberg) had a fantastic game, Natu (Natalia Kuikka), Sam Coffey. Our entire back six, what a super year for them and they made me proud tonight.”
The Thorns led 1-0 at the break. They doubled it early in the second half thanks to some unique and favorable circumstances.
In the 56th minute, Ryan put a cross in for a streaking Smith. Although Smith missed it, the Current mishandled it in a dangerous space and it ended up being an own goal to put the Thorns up 2-0.
Weaver nearly made it 3-0 in the 59th minute, putting a powerful shot on-frame that forced a leaping save by Franch.
“I’m so proud of the team,” Smith said. “Everybody stepped up, played their role really well. Took care of what they needed to take care of. It was honestly just a fun game to play in. Not every game is that fun. Some games are just a grind, but this game was fun. I felt the energy coming from everyone. We felt confident, we felt good.”
Portland brought on substitutes Hina Sugita and Janine Beckie in the 63rd minute, replacing Rocky Rodriguez and Weaver. Kansas City’s struggles continued regardless of the personnel on the field, and Portland remained the only team posing any real threat with the ball at its feet.
Bixby remained a steady presence in goal as well, as she has been all season.
“It’s been a hard year for Portland,” Bixby said. “There’s been a lot of external distractions for us, and for this to be what we achieved this year means so much to us. We know the city of Portland wanted us to bring it home for them. And we did. We are so happy to bring the trophy home to them.”
Crystal Dunn came on for Portland in the 73rd minute, replacing Christine Sinclair. Dunn received loud cheers from fans of both sides as she took the pitch at Audi Field.
The Thorns kept their form for the rest of the match, coasting to the finish line before they stormed the field, screamed and hugged each other in celebration. Through all the pain and uncertainty of this season, Portland added one more piece of hardware to its illustrious, ever-growing cabinet.
“It’s a beautiful ending,” Thorns general manager Karina LeBlanc told The Oregonian/OregonLive, reveling in the cheers raining down from the Rose City Riveters who made the journey across the country from Portland. “In the preseason we said that we wanted to win, but win the right way. What this team is done is they’ve won in the right way. Everything this year has been, they’ve been like, ‘Let’s keep it tight. Let’s keep it about us. Let’s put ourselves first.’ And that’s what they’ve done.
“They’ve stuck to the process and stuck to their identity. Today, they played with their identity.”
— Ryan Clarke reported from Washington, D.C.