It will be easy for veteran soccer fans to point at Sunday’s match at Providence Park and deride the unfairness of playoff soccer, if not the game itself. The Portland Thorns outshot their guests, the Chicago Red Stars, 21-5, had 60.7 percent of the game’s ball possession, and generated seven corner kicks to the Red Stars’ one. That the game ended 2-0 in Chicago’s favor was an upset, but it also spoke to the many ways soccer matches can be won.
“I think it's important to congratulate Chicago,” Portland head coach Mark Parsons, overseeing his final game with the Thorns, said after the match. “They turned up into perhaps the hardest place to play, against probably the hardest team to play. Very stingy, very disciplined, very organized, and they've got a great result for them.”
In the long day run, these things — outlying results — are supposed to even out. But there is no long run in playoff soccer, a reality players and coaches have to accept before every season’s start. No matter how good you are over a larger sample, at the end of each year, in two or three one-game scenarios, you have to find a way to end on top.
Portland didn’t do that on Sunday. Their season is over. They claimed three trophies in 2021, but with Chicago moving on to next weekend’s final in Louisville, the Thorns season ends two wins short of a fourth.
“Right now, it's hard to not think about the game tonight,” Thorns captain Christine Sinclair explained. “But that being said, it's been a pretty successful season for us, winning three trophies. [We] just came up a little short at the end.”
Chicago’s winning goal came eight minutes short of halftime, after a first half-hour that left the Red Stars with only one shot. Their second shot was a speculative one, but when Katie Johnson went high, near post, and from a sharp angle in the 37th-minute, Chicago had an unlikely path to 1-0.
The Thorns’ biggest worry came at the hour mark. That’s when another piece of speculation, Sarah Woldmoe’s attempt from 24 yards out, ended up inside Portland’s left post.
“When you're down 2-0, just have to think one at a time,” Thorns defender Emily Menges said. “Especially in a semifinal, as soon as you think you're in a deep hole, you're not going to keep your head in the game. Chicago did a really good job of keeping people in their [penalty] box, and it was really hard to get [good chances] clean off.”
This was not how this season was supposed to end, is what you can say anytime a top seed exists a playoff too soon. But given the Thorns’ 2021 trajectory, it feels particularly important to point that out. They won the preseason Challenge Cup, the midseason Women’s International Champions Cup, as well as the NWSL Shield for the league’s best record in the regular season. It was the league’s first treble, and it was supposed to be building toward a quadruple. Nothing was guaranteed, but the default expectation was still there. If the Thorns outplayed their opponents, they should win.
Oh, what a stupid assumption. We’ve been around enough to know better. The times teams get outplayed and win are rare, but not so rare that we should feel beyond them. In women’s soccer, this is how United States women’s national team fans felt in the summer of 2016, when the U.S. went out of the Olympics despite thoroughly outplaying Sweden. This is how, on the men’s side, Bayern Munich felt when Chelsea was outshot 17-3 but still won UEFA Champions League in 2012.
This is the sport we sign up for. It never promised us fairness. It did promise joy, elite athletes, tactical conflict that’s matched by few other sports, and accessibility that means anyone, anywhere can play this game. It gives people nights to come together in the thousands and thousands, and it gives us lives filled with memories that can’t be replicated anywhere else. But it never promises fairness. Or justice. Or any direct correlation between process and results. In this game, you can’t tie identity to results.
Thankfully, the Thorns don’t have to. The team is no different than they were before kickoff. There’s just one fewer game on the schedule. They’re just as talented as they were on Sunday morning; just as capable of winning the next time they take the field. Ninety minutes of soccer doesn’t change that.
What changes is their chance at this year’s title. That’s gone, with a spot in Saturday’s final well-earned by the Chicago Red Stars. They overcame what Portland brought. But Portland will, three months from now, take what they’ve built into a new season, and likely be the favorites to win that year’s title. Unfortunately, after Sunday’s result, a new season is the next thing the Thorns have to look forward to.