With every dramatic win or humbling draw, the players grew closer and more determined.
Players and coaches on Portland Thorns FC's sideline could hardly contain their excitement as the final seconds of the 2022 NWSL Championship ticked down.
Christine Sinclair, on the verge of summiting the NWSL for a third time, displayed the same giddy excitement as Rocky Rodríguez, Morgan Weaver and Abby Smith who stood on either side of her, all of whom had never hoisted the NWSL’s most elusive trophy.
As the seconds slowly whittled away, anticipation grew. Up 2-0 against the Kansas City Current deep into second half stoppage time, players looked around in disbelief as they soaked in the moment. Hands over their mouths and grinning ear to ear, they held one another back until, after what felt like an eternity, referee Natalie Simon blew the final whistle. The party, roughly 2,800 miles from Portland, commenced.
“I’m so tired,” said coach Rhian Wilkinson shortly after the game. “I feel completely depleted, but in the best way.”
The scenes that soon unfolded at Audi Field were about what one would imagine: beer showers, lit cigars, celebrations with traveling fans, and lifting a trophy as confetti fell. Mixed with the excitement and celebration was a distinct sense of catharsis that faded away into the chilly Washington, D.C. air, the byproduct of finally releasing months of pent-up stress, pressure, and expectations.
“Everybody knows it’s been a long, hard year for not just our club, but for the whole entire NWSL,” said Crystal Dunn. “I think for us, every game we step into, we remind each other that this game is fun. We enjoy playing this game. We find so much joy in it.”
You can chalk the Thorns’ seven-game unbeaten run to close the season up to individual talent on the field, playing tired opponents and general momentum. Or just call it destiny, something difficult to argue with after Dunn’s dramatic winner deep into second-half stoppage time of Portland’s 2-1 win against San Diego Wave FC in the semifinal.
“I was weirdly never in doubt, and when it got after 90 minutes, maybe I should have been more,” said Wilkinson following the semifinal.
How did the Thorns return to the top? It certainly felt like a team of destiny, distinct from the last two title-winning teams. A perfect blend of exciting youth and veteran leadership, players forged a tight bond that grew closer with each passing win, which led to a night of blissful celebration in the Nation’s Capital.
Poppin' bottles in the locker room
Portland’s roster runs the gamut, with players who have years of international experience to others hungry to break into Wilkinson’s gameday lineup. Fourteen players are 25 and younger while 12 are over 26, producing a balance that never felt too veteran heavy nor relied on young talent.
This season’s playoffs provide a perfect example of the Thorns’ blend of talent. Rodríguez, 29, and Dunn, 30, scored the goals that sent Portland to the championship while Sophia Smith, 22, scored the league-winning goal in the fourth minute.
Smith, the NWSL MVP who finished with 14 regular season goals, led a youthful attack that delivered in key moments this year. Who could forget Yazmeen Ryan's last-second header that allowed Portland to steal a point against Angel City on the road with several players off on international duty? Or what about Taylor Porter’s rocket of a goal to cement a 3-0 win against the Chicago Red Stars in the club’s final regular season home game? And then you can’t leave Weaver out, who scored the game-winning goal against the Washington Spirit to help the Thorns turn a 1-0 deficit in the 84th minute into a 2-1 win?
Behind them sat an experienced back line, anchored by Becky Sauerbrunn as well as "Iron Woman" Kelli Hubly (who played every minute of every game this season) and flanked by Meghan Klingenberg and Natalia Kuikka.
“Our backline, they were a brick wall,” said Smith after the final. “They weren’t letting anything get through them and Natu (Kuikka) had an amazing game and everyone came to play. I’m so proud of every single person on this team.”
Most importantly, there weren’t any ego issues, which went a long way under a first-year head coach in Wilkinson. No player exemplified that more than Sinclair and the role she took on this season. One of the most decorated players in women’s soccer, the Canadian captain embraced her role all season long, finishing with five goals. She subbed in at the end of the Thorn’s semifinal match and played 73 minutes in the final.
“You see Cristiano Ronaldo’s antics for [Manchester United] and I put her on for one minute to just give us some time and she does that willingly for her team, even though obviously she wants to lead her team out,” said Wilkinson after the semifinal.
The moment the Thorns rushed onto the pitch at the final whistle
With every dramatic win and humbling draw, the Thorns grew more united. They shut the noise out and leaned on one another. They never fractured, but instead found strength in playing for and with one another.
“A couple of years have been rough, but the fact that we were able to come together for what we love the most, which is what right now is playing soccer, and the fact that we had the support from the fans and the city, it means a lot for us as players,” said Rodríguez. “We got in a great place at the right time. And coming together is what made us stronger, that’s what’s special about this team.”
“We got in a great place at the right time. And coming together is what made us stronger, that’s what’s special about this team.”
Through the ups and downs and adjusting to a new system, the team thrived, finishing with just three losses, a fact that contributed to a feeling of destiny. Everything that transpired between kicking off the Challenge Cup last March to Saturday’s championship game contributed to the elation players felt when they finally hoisted the trophy they most coveted.
“It had its ups and downs, but I’m so proud of this group and how it stuck together.
“It has been a journey,” said Sinclair, immediately following the championship. “It had its ups and downs, but I’m so proud of this group and how it stuck together. This was the goal at the start of the year, it has been a while since we brought this trophy back to Portland.”
The day after the final, as the players arrived back at Portland International Airport with the NWSL trophy in hand, hundreds of eager fans lined the airport’s departure level and sky bridge above, decked out in Thorns jerseys and scarves eager for a glimpse at the reigning NWSL champions.
Exhausted following a five-hour transcontinental flight preceded by a night of little sleep, players celebrated with the fans, displaying the same boundless energy we've seen all season. It was a moment months in the making.