Sunday night, at Yurcak Field in Piscataway, N.J., Portland Thorns FC celebrated what once felt like a distant dream: they had just won the NWSL shield, awarded to the league's best regular-season team.
In their excitement, some of the players began singing a song familiar to fans of the Portland Timbers: “Build a Bonfire.”
These celebrations were the culmination of a long season of hard work, perseverance, and sheer of force of will that Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons says were well-deserved.
“[The players] care for each other and they care for this club and I think that's what it comes down to: a team that can do it over 20 games, the team that puts the most into it and sacrifices the most and puts their team first,” Parsons said after the match.
“I think from the beginning we've shown a commitment to putting the team first above any of us and each game it's helped us be strong and it's put us in this position.”
Ever the perfectionist, though, Parsons rarely seemed satisfied throughout Sunday's match, even after his team had built a comfortable 3-1 lead late in the second half.
“The girls made fun of me at the end because they said, 'You were 3-1 up and you were still screaming to get tight and to get organized,'” he said with a laugh. “I wanted to see this game out. I didn't want to give Sky Blue a chance to get back in and also we're building to next week['s playoff match]. We want to leave that pitch feeling good, like we gave everything.”
Week to week this season, Parsons wanted his team to improve on each previous performance, whether those improvements came at home or on the road, whether the team was missing starters or was at full strength. He demanded excellence and often got it.
Matches like the September 11 victory over the Western New York Flash at home or last night's victory over a feisty Sky Blue FC provide a litmus test to this team, a proving ground for the players to demonstrate their ability to control a match under even the most trying of circumstances.
And over the entire course of the 2016 NWSL regular season, the Thorns did exactly that, jumping out of the gate with a 12-game unbeaten run, keeping up with the Spirit with six crucial points in July while missing over half of the starting line-up, and finishing the season strong with 12 points from their final four matches.
Put in that context, winning the NWSL Shield this season becomes that much more incredible an accomplishment.
“This is the most competitive NWSL season in its history in my subjective opinion,” Parsons said. “We've got a team that's probably one of the best in the world like Seattle [Reign FC] that didn't make [the playoffs] and that shows you how competitive this league is.
“For us to show at the end of the seven month season that we're up there on top, I think it shows that we've worked really hard, we've stayed focused, we've stayed together, and we've never given up.”
This Sunday, the Thorns will once again host the Western New York Flash, this time in the NWSL Semifinal (2 p.m. PT, FS1). This team, Parsons says, is ready to get back to Providence Park this weekend and finish the work that it started.
“This is a hungry, competitive group that want to show that they are the best in this league and this [Shield] is something important to them,” he said. “This proves that we're the best team over the last seven months and now it's time to be the best team in one game. We've been the best in 20, now it's time to be the best in one game and that starts on Sunday.”