Every year brings new feelings about how 2016 ended for Portland Thorns FC. In the winter that followed, the disappointment of that ending was still acute, though the title that came in 2017 briefly cast that disappointment as a stepping stone. After the 2018 season, the slim loss to the Western New York Flash two years before felt even more harsh, while now, that 4-3 playoff defeat at Providence Park feels almost lazy in how it perfectly foreshadowed what the Flash would become.
It would be nice, though, if time doesn’t brush over that year’s slim margins. As evidence, consider the result from September 11, 2016 two weeks before the playoffs and the match featured for this Saturday's PTFC: From the Archives, presented by Providence Health & Services (Webstream at ThornsFC.com).
That was when the Flash, a young group that claimed its first title in the weeks that followed, came to Goose Hollow and used a ferocious press to push Portland toward its goal in the game’s early moments. A long pass from Lindsey Horan would break Western New York’s defense and force a penalty, sparking a series of goals that left Portland up, 3-0, feeling sure about its place in the NWSL’s pecking order. Over the match’s final minutes, though, the visitors’ future began to shine through, and although the final score ended in Portland’s favor (3-2), late goals from Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams provided a hint of how the Thorns’ (and, the NWSL’s) season would close.
“Close,” though, implies finality which, when thinking back to the 210 minutes the teams shared in the season’s last rounds, feels far too black-and-white. Over the next two years, Portland and Western New York’s cores would meet in two league finals, and while the now-North Carolina Courage have become the class of this league’s current era, that present was still unknown three-and-a-half years ago. Back then, all we saw were two evenly matched teams – two teams who, in the 6-6 scoreline they’d amass over two matches, were already transcending simple, black-and-white conclusions.
“We all had moments tonight where New York caught us on our back foot,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said after the game, speaking to a room unaware of what the Flash-cum-Courage would become. “They’re a very dangerous team, very dangerous team that plays with passion and plays with speed.”
In 2016, the Thorns were a dangerous team, too. They proved as much on Sept. 11. They proved it again the following week, when they secured he club’s first-ever NWSL Shield, and they proved it the following year, when Portland claimed its second league title. That Flash squad, though, would defeat the Washington Spirit in that season’s final and go on to claim two stars for the Courage they’d become.
All of which brings us back to Sept. 11, 2016. In the moments after the game, those of us on hand knew we’d seen something magical, but it felt like the kind of magic that you can see after any kickoff, when 90 minutes provide a stage for a Lindsey Horan’s growth, a Christine Sinclair’s precision, a Jessica McDonald’s ferocity, or a Lynn Williams’ explosion. That game, though, also let us see a league’s future, making it all the more magical to look back on it now.