"Unbelievable:" Tyler Lussi reminds fans what the NWSL is about

Tyler Lussi water, Thorns vs Pride, 07.14.19

PORTLAND, Ore. – This is what the National Women’s Soccer League is about.

As important as the 23 players who helped the United States win the World Cup are to the league, soccer’s future in this country, as well as women in sports in general, the backbone of the NWSL is the players whose sacrifices help fill out the rosters; they’re the players who’ve put off other careers to pursue their dreams on the field; the players whose growth takes place in the shadows.

The NWSL is about Tyler Lussi. Three years ago she was selected with in the third round of the league’s annual college draft, joining a roster whose depth meant she was unlikely to see the field. In two-and-a-half years since, she’s played a total of 901 minutes for Portland – less than 50 percent of a league season. She’s started seven games, made 30 appearances and, before Sunday afternoon’s game, had three career goals.

Her fourth was by far the most memorable, but to see it as only a goal would diminish the moment. Even acknowledging its context within the game – in stoppage time; with the score tied 3-3; with what would prove to be the game’s last action – risks embracing the trees while forgetting the forest. In confirming a full three points for her team against the Orlando Pride, Lussi put an exclamation point in the middle of a personal story which, to this point, had been told almost exclusively in the background.

“It’s just unbelievable,” Lussi said after the 4-3 win, still gathering the context around a signature moment. She’d just finished what may prove the season’s most memorable goal, one that will rank among the most iconic in Thorns history. “I was at the Tyler Lussi game,” fans will say, going forward. In the first minutes after the game, she was still in an athlete’s pose.

“We just came back and fought, and we didn’t give up,” she said. “Ninety-plus minutes, this team keeps fighting. Don’t count us out. We will come back and win.”

That win came on a late corner kick, one where the flotsam of the penalty area’s scrum cleared inexplicably, making Lussi’s score feel preordained. A run from Caitlin Foord dragged some attention to the near post. Katherine Reynolds’ secondary run pulled more attention away from the middle of goal. Into the vacated space ran Lussi, onto a perfectly in-swinging ball from Meghan Klingenberg, giving the Princeton alumna little option but to drive it into goal at the far post.

“I just followed it in,” Lussi explained. “There was space, and I just had to redirect it into the goal. Kling played a great ball. She’d been playing great balls the entire game, the entire season. It was a team win, and we fought back.”

A team win, yes, but part of a team’s success if giving its talents their space to excel. Lussi already snared one opportunity June 29 in Houston, when her goal and assist off the bench turned a 1-0 deficit against the Dash into a 2-1 win. “Tyler freaking Lussi changed the game,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said, then. His comments after Lussi’s latest heroics were even more effusive.

“Tyler Lussi has been evidence of training how you play, because all she did today is what she’s been doing every single day in training,” her said. “She did it all last week, and I didn’t get her in (against Reign FC). She did it again this week. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as I did last week.”

Lussi was caught in last week’s numbers game, left on the bench as the team reincorporated its first significant batch of World Cup returns. Sunday’s score now gives the 24-year-old two goals in as many appearances.

“You train like that, it comes into the game,” Parsons reiterated. “There was no doubt that if she had a chance there, just like Houston, she was going to put it in the back of the net.”

In doing so, Lussi crafted a moment that would be a highlight of almost any professional career. With the clock frozen at 90:00, the Thorns had a final chance – a corner kick that was going to swing into the club’s renown North End. It’s the same end where goalkeeper Michelle Betos scored her iconic equalizer against FC Kansas City in 2015. That same year, the Portland Timbers advanced to and won MLS Cup after the famous “double post” shootout victory against Sporting Kansas City in the same end of the park.

How Lussi’s moment ranks with those memories is a question time will resolve. But for a player whose work has become a model her coach can point to in the minutes after a win, Lussi’s goal is clearly a reward. It’s a reward for pursuing her dreams, for fighting for over two years to try and achieve them, and putting herself in the right place to become unforgettable.

“It’s special,” Lussi admitted when asked about the goal in her career’s context. It’s taken four questions for her mind to adjust, to go from the pure emotion of the moment to describing something so new. That goal is part of her life now, forever.

No matter what happens from here forward, a part of Lussi can always be what she was in the moment: screaming; fist-pumping; sprinting toward a corner flag to be mobbed by teammates, having just delivered a game-winner in front of the Riveters at Providence Park.

“To play on this field, in front of these fans, who come every single game with true fire and so much energy, it’s a joy to play on this field and with this team,” she said. “Having the players and the staff and the coaches and Mark, it’s a true honor to play here for this club.”

When the U.S. national team members return to their NWSL teams this week, our spotlight is going to shift. We’re going to give our new sporting heroes the reception they’ve earned. But as the shadows thicken around that light and threaten to make June’s stars anonymous, remember the players who keep the league afloat. Remember the players whose sacrifices have mounted, whose dreams won’t ever see a national team members’ rewards. Remember the four-goal games from North Carolina’s Kristen Hamilton, the lunging saves from Reign FC’s Casey Murphy, and the play of Thorns like Midge Purce, Katherine Reynolds and Gabby Seiler that helped drive their team into first.

And remember Tyler Lussi, as well as every player who’s like her. By giving us something unforgettable, she’s shown what the backbone of this league can do.