Ahead of Portland Thorns FC's first playoff match at Providence Park on October 2 (2 p.m. PT, FS1), ThornsFC.com takes a look back at the entire 2016 NWSL regular season and selects a few of the moments that made this season special.
A New Start
During the offseason, the Thorns had completely retooled, hiring a new coach in Mark Parsons, adding national team stars like Lindsey Horan and Meghan Klingenberg, drafting college standout Emily Sonnett, trading for forward Nadia Nadim, and signing midfielders Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Amandine Henry.
Fans expected this roster to come out swinging against the expansion side Orlando Pride in the team's home opener.
To the surprise of many, however, the Thorns quickly fell behind 1-0 in the 12th minute.
That's when four-year Thorns veteran Tobin Heath put the team on her back. The U.S. international, who set an NWSL assists record with 10 this season, sent passes to teammates Brynjarsdottir and Horan in the 25th and 81st minute that led to the game-tying and game-winning goals.
The three points that the Thorns picked up against the Pride and the way in which the team had come back from an early deficit to do so suggested that for this team, anything was possible.
Beginning with that 2-1 victory over the Pride, the Thorns either won or drew its next 11 matches. This culminated in a four-match winning streak that began with a 2-0 road victory over the Western New York Flash and ended with a 2-1 home victory over Sky Blue FC in early July.
In all, the Thorns won seven and drew five of their first twelve matches – five of them on the road – an unbeaten record good for second in the NWSL's four-year history. In that same span of matches, the Thorns conceded just seven goals, while scoring 18.
Among the biggest signings this past offseason was that of French international midfielder Amandine Henry.
Before joining the Thorns in June, Henry had been named the Silver Ball winner at the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup and had won the 2015-16 UEFA Women's Champions League trophy with her club team Olympique Lyonnais of France.
In June, Henry made her home debut against the Chicago Red Stars with a start in midfield. In the 25th minute of that match, Henry assisted on Nadia Nadim's goal, the team's second of the match in a crucial 2-0 victory.
In late July, after a spate of tough results and with most of his starters out on Olympic duty, head coach Mark Parsons called on his veteran players – goalkeeper Michelle Betos, defenders Emily Menges and Katherine Reynolds, midfielders Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Mana Shim, and forward Nadia Nadim – to form the spine of a team otherwise comprised of young pros and rookies.
This was the team that found itself facing off against a largely first-choice Reign FC line-up that boasted the firepower of Jess Fishlock, Kim Little, Merritt Mathias, Manon Melis, and Japanese international Nahomi Kawasumi.
The Thorns, though, struck first when Nadim expertly finished a chip pass from Shim to give the Thorns the 1-0 lead. Betos and the Thorns defense took care of the rest, holding firm against a furious late push forward from Fishlock, Little, and company.
Against the odds, the shorthanded Thorns had won, securing a critical three points heading into the Olympic break.
Home Sweet Home
Having clinched a playoff berth the weekend earlier, the Thorns went into their final home match of the 2016 NWSL regular season hoping to also clinch the first home playoff match in franchise history.
Through the first 70 minutes against Western New York, the Thorns had built a 3-0 cushion with goals by Nadim, Christine Sinclair, and Brynjarsdottir. Thorns fans were ready to party.
The Flash, however, had other ideas, scoring two goals in the span of just three minutes and with 10 minutes still left to play.
But situations like these often bring out the best in championship-caliber teams.
Goalkeeper Michelle Betos made several crucial late saves and the defense in front of her, much as it had all season, put out fire after fire, while the midfielders and forwards moved the ball quickly on the counter to stretch the Flash defense.
As the final whistle blew on a 3-2 Thorns victory, the players and coaches who had fought so hard all season for this moment finally got to celebrate with the fans.
The Washington Spirit fell 3-1 to the Chicago Red Stars the night before the Thorns' final match of the season, meaning that a win or draw against Sky Blue FC the next day would be enough for the Thorns to win the first NWSL Shield in franchise history.
Sky Blue, though, wasn't about to hand the Shield over to the visitors. In the 6th minute of the match, Sky Blue's Tasha Kai scored a powerful header off a corner kick to give her team the 1-0 lead.
But late in the first half, Thorns midfielder Allie Long headed home a Tobin Heath free kick to level the match and that was all the Thorns needed, as they added two more goals in the second half to take the three points and the Shield.