Thorns huddle, Thorns vs. Reign, 9.15.18
Photo by Sam Ortega

NWSL Championship | With victory comes legend for Thorns FC, North Carolina

In Mark Parsons’ first season as Portland Thorns FC head coach, the team claimed the 2016 NWSL Shield, finishing top of the league in the regular season.

That award commenced a three-year stretch where every major team honor has gone to either Portland or, when you consider the history of the relocated Western New York Flash (which, officially, the league does not) the North Carolina Courage. The Flash won the 2016 NWSL Championship title, the Thorns did the same in 2017 – with North Carolina taking the Shield – while the Courage finished on top of the league after this, the 2018 season.

These are the two dominant teams in the NWSL, and after three years of dominance, it’s not particularly close. The Chicago Red Stars have accumulated an enviable arsenal of talent, and Seattle Reign FC look poised to grow in a second year under Vlatko Andonovski. But as the semifinals reminded us, there are two teams that hover over all others in the NWSL, and they’ll be on display Saturday at Providence Park (1:30pm PT, Lifetime | NWSL Playoffs presented by Tillamook Yogurt).

To say these teams have some history would be an understatement. The only games either have lost in the postseason since Parsons inherited current Courage head coach Paul Riley’s job in Portland have been to each other: in 2016, with the Flash beating the Thorns in the semifinals (in Portland); and in 2017, when the Thorns exacted their revenge in the NWSL Championship in Orlando. The only thing that has stopped either team from being back-to-back defending champions is each other.

That Riley has been on both sides of this Lakers-Celtics dynamic provides fuel. He coached Christine Sinclair, and Tobin Heath, as well as Emily Menges. He arrived in 2014 with a well-earned reputation for success after his time with Women’s Professional Soccer’s Philadelphia Independence, and it just didn’t work. The same approach that ignited Philadelphia and has fueled the Courage didn’t fit in Portland.

A similar story could be told for Jessica McDonald, a player who has blossomed into one of the league’s best forwards since leaving Portland. Riley had her here, in Portland, and coached her to an 11-goal season, but amid a congested roster, he also dealt her to the Houston Dash after the 2014 reason. Reunited and returning to the Rose City, both McDonald and Riley have extra incentive to claim a title on their former home soil.

The way last year’s Championship game played out, too, will have a carry-over effect. North Carolina had built a reputation for having the most physical team in the league, but Portland wasn’t far behind. In last year’s final, though, the Thorns bullied the Courage. They set a physical tone that North Carolina then tried to match, perhaps luring the Courage into a match within a match. Come the final whistle, Portland had drawn the regular-season champions into the game Parsons had conjured. That lure may have been the only thing separating the two sides at the end of last season.

Those are the kinds of things that linger with players. For an offseason. For a season. For a career, if it’s not redeemed. The Courage know how close they were to a title last year, and given the time players like McDonald, captain Abby Erceg and midfielder McCall Zerboni (another former Thorn, but out of Saturday’s match) have put into the game, they know title shots aren’t guaranteed. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to be with a special group, but most of the time, you’re not. When you have your chances, you have to cherish them.

That, as much as the Courage’s imposing talent, may be the Thorns’ biggest obstacle on Saturday. North Carolina is stacked with players like midfielder Samantha Mewis, who can be as influential as Lindsey Horan; Crystal Dunn, who can be as dangerous as Caitlin Foord; Lynn Williams, who is quicker than almost anything the Thorns can offer. They have a U.S. (Abby Dahlkemper) and New Zealand (Erceg) international in central defense, two U.S. internationals at fullback (Jaelene Hinkle and Merritt Mathias) as well as a Brazilian international in midfield (Debinha). They have McDonald, who was at one time the league’s all-time leading scorer, and Sabrina D’Angelo, a goalkeeper who was the 2016 NWSL Championship Most Valuable Player. Along with Chicago and Portland, North Carolina is one of the trio of ridiculously talented teams in the NWSL.

They’re motivated, too. And from a few people’s time in Portland, there may be a little scorn, things which will undoubtedly leave a victory in the Thorns’ home, in front of over 21,000 thousand antagonists, meaning more than most.

For Portland, Saturday’s game may be on home soil, but the opponent is at a level the team has never conquered before. For them to rise above would not only say something about what they’re capable of but what they are. If the Courage have entered the conversation as one of the best women’s soccer teams this part of the world has ever seen, surely a victory in a winner-take-all match against a highly-motivated, elite-quality opponent would tilt that discussion toward the Thorns.

“Because it’s a rematch,” Parsons said, “because of the way it went last year, we know what we’re facing, and that’s going to bring out the best in us. Because we’re going to be forced to be at our best, it’s not a bad position to be in.”

If the Courage’s Championship match is all about redemption, the Thorns’ is all about legacy. That’s what Portland is fighting for, tomorrow. It’s all about cherishing a moment none of these players may ever get again: the opportunity to claim back-to-back titles; a chance to go down as the best team we’ve seen; an achievement that would crystalize an era that’s featured players like Sinclair, Heath, Horan, Adrianna Franch and Meghan Klingenberg. It’s a way to reward the work that’s brought players like Foord, Ellie Carpenter, Andressinha, Midge Purce and Ana Crnogorčević to Portland, and a way for the development of players like Menges, Emily Sonnett, Celeste Boureille and Hayley Raso, the leadership of Katherine Reynolds, to truly speak toward what Portland’s built beyond a single game’s results.

These opportunities aren’t givens. The Courage have had to live with that reminder all year, just as the Thorns had to live with theirs the year before. And, as Portland’s 2014 and 2015 seasons say, great talent doesn’t always do great things.

On Saturday, though, two elite teams get a chance to do something that would be undeniably great, so great that, no matter who wins, no tarnish will be applied to the other. But the winner? In a match that’s a year in the making, two years in the building? A match whose true impact won't hit us until the instant the teams walk out of Providence Park's hallway, side-by-side, giving us our final moments to consider what will come with the whistle?

The winner gets to be the new defining team of the first era of NWSL soccer. The winner gets to go to their locker room, let the tears flow, knowing that everything they’ve devoted their careers to has gotten a new reward. They get to look around that room, at a group whose character and quality they'll never quite experience, again, and know exactly how every single other person feels.

They will know they’ve reached something that transcends a single game’s results. They will know that, together, they’ve become legends, doing so in a game everybody knows will mean so much.

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