In the end, the Portland Thorns made bringing home the NWSL championship trophy seem inevitable.
However, it was anything but.
When the final whistle sounded in Washington D.C last week on the team’s 2-0 win over the Kansas City Current to claim the title, the players held a well-deserved party on the pitch for themselves and the fans who have stood by them through thick and thin.
When league MVP Sophie Smith blasted home the match’s opening goal less than 4 minutes into the game, it seemed the Thorns were well on their way. Then, just as they have for much of the past year, they just kept rolling. They absorbed everything the Current could throw at them and added a second goal early in the second half. At that point, it truly felt inevitable that they would win. Yet, the Thorns kept on going. When many teams would sink back into a defensive shell, sub in defensive players, and “park the bus,” the Thorns did precisely the opposite. The Current never mounted a serious attack over the remainder of the game, mainly because they never had possession of the ball long enough to mount one. Instead, the Thorns kept attacking, kept pushing, and kept the Current on their backfoot through the final whistle.
If that mentality does not exemplify the attitude of the Thorns players on and off the pitch- I don’t know what does. The team’s core players made it through the Paul Riley era, they made it through ownership and a front office that protected and promoted an environment of sexual harassment, and they came out standing on top. It is hard to find role models and heroes in sports today. Not because the players in the “gold old days” were any better but because sports today are played in the public sphere. As Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson learned, everything becomes public eventually, no matter how you try to hide it.
These Thorns players are all role models for having endured what they endured and now wearing a jersey with three stars on it. They don’t need to wear that jersey to celebrate a scandal-marred owner or an organization that did everything but protect them. They can wear it to celebrate themselves and what they have accomplished. This is a team that Portlanders of all stripes can look up to.
The Thorns have players from all walks of life. In a single game, the team had both the oldest player appearing in the NWSL championship in Christine Sinclair at 39 years old and the youngest in Olivia Moultrie at 17. I’m the same age as Sinclair and can barely imagine getting out of bed in the morning and getting in a semi-regular workout, much less playing 90 minutes of top-level soccer every week so what Sinclair is doing is incredible. Come to think of it, I felt the same way when I was 17, so what Moultrie is doing is incredible as well. Crystal Dunn just gave birth a few months ago, and there she was in the championship game, trying to get the Thorns a third goal after getting them into the championship with a last-second strike in the semi-finals.
With Wilkinson fired and Paulson stepping away from operations with both the Timbers and Thorns, the team is now women-led from top to bottom, with head coach Rhian Wilkinson and General Manager Karina LeBlanc helming the team. I would sincerely hope it stays that way. A women-led team full of a diverse and incredibly talented group of athletes. It bears mentioning that not only did the Thorns win the title, but they also did it in front of the largest televised audience in NWSL history. The game was played in prime time and on a major network (CBS) for the first time. Fans responded, with over 900,000 tuning in to watch the game.
Women’s sports have been fighting an uphill battle for decades to get on equal footing with their male counterparts. It’s a battle that has long been fought, and if the Riley scandal shows us one thing, it shows us that it is a battle that still has a way to go.
This is fine because if there is a team that is up to the fight, it’s the Thorns. They’ll be back next year, building on the same core as this year’s team, to take another crack at the title. No matter who owns the team, the Thorns are in charge of their destiny and won’t take their foot off the gas until they have achieved their goal. They made that clear this season.
Given how they closed out the year, we wouldn’t want to have it any other way.