Feature NWSL Championship game Oct 2022

From breakout rookies to shattered records to dramatic victories, here's what defined the historic season.

With a win against the Kansas City Current this weekend, the Portland Thorns would become the first NWSL team to add a third star above its crest. The 2022 NWSL Championship will be the club’s 32nd game in all competitions since kicking off against OL Reign back in mid-March.

How did we get here? It has been a wild ride for Portland, which is one of two teams left standing ahead of the season’s final game. From breakout rookies to shattered records to dramatic victories, here are the stories that defined the historic 2022 season. 

Key results at the right times

There’s no debating the Thorns’ most pivotal win of the season came last weekend in the NWSL semifinal against the San Diego Wave. Both goals, first from Rocky Rodríguez and then late from Crystal Dunn, were absolute, certified golazos. Rodríguez confirmed them as such, and it would be hard to find someone to disagree.

How did Portland arrive at the semifinal in the first place? Even memories of thrilling victories can get lost in the length of a 22-game regular season that stretches through the dog days of summer. But let's take Portland’s most emphatic victories, which came in back-to-back home games in midsummer. The Thorns beat the Orlando Pride 6-0 on June 19 followed by a 5-0 home thrashing against New York/New Jersey Gotham FC.

Soon after, while seven Thorns were away on international duty, the Thorns showed that they were a true team with a bench that is miles deep. Away at Angel City FC on July 1, in the dying minutes of the game, Yazmeen Ryan scored the equalizer, rescuing a point. The Thorns kept their unbeaten run alive through the international break and every player stepped up to help. In August, Portland showed it could turn any game on its head late, even while behind. The Thorns trailed 1-0 to the Washington Spirit with shy of 15 minutes to play. Then Christine Sinclair and Morgan Weaver scored after the 84th minute to help Portland ensure all three points returned to the Rose City.

The Thorns may not have won the Shield, but they did enough to secure a first round bye and assemble a dramatic win against the Wave. Now, they must piece together one last complete game in the final.

Thorns Path to NWSL Championship feature
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Sophia Smith couldn’t stop scoring (and setting records in the process)

Portland led the entire league with 49 goals this season, with 28.6% of that total coming courtesy of 22-year-old forward Sophia Smith.

Barreling past back lines, slicing through defenses like a knife through butter, surprising opposing goalkeepers with curling shots from outside the box, you name it and Smith certainly did it this season. She scored a whopping 14 times, one goals shy of winning the Golden Boot, an award given to the league’s top scorer.

This is Sophia.

As it turns out, Smith did one-better than the Golden Boot: She received the 2022 NWSL MVP award on Thursday afternoon, days after being named to the league’s Best XI First Team. Smith became the youngest NWSL player ever to hit double-digit goals earlier this season and broke the club’s single-season scoring record with a brace in the Thorns’ season finale against New York/New Jersey Gotham FC.

“I think everyone's big focus is Sophia, she’s phenomenal,” said Weaver after the Thorns’ 3-0 win against the Chicago Red Stars. “She can get behind players, she can work her way and do whatever she really wants. If [opponents are] focused on that, we have 10 other people on the field that can be there and do the things that need to be done.”

Smith doubled her goal-scoring tally from the 2021 season (7) en route to being named the Thorns Supporter’s Player of the Year. Those same fans hope she can deliver one last time with a goal on American club soccer’s biggest stage.

Portland’s newcomers shine

In addition to Smith’s goal-scoring exploits, the Thorns received a significant boost from a pair of newcomers this season.

Rookie Sam Coffey has proven herself in Portland’s midfield all season long, netting a goal and assisting two others in 20 games. Like any defensive midfielder, Coffey’s numbers don’t jump out on a box score. Instead, she impressed by doing the hard work of bossing the midfield. With phenomenal positioning and plug-and-play consistency out of college, Coffey joined Smith on the NWSL Best 11 and was named a Rookie of the Year finalist.

The Penn State product finished third in the NWSL with 38 interceptions and created 35 scoring chances, second-best on the Thorns. Coffey exceeded even the highest expectations set for her this season and through consistent club performances earned a spot in the United States women's national team.

“It’s an underappreciated position that I have (Coffey) in,” said coach Rhian Wilkinson following Portland’s 2-0 win against Orlando. “People often forget she wasn’t a No. 6 in college. I loved her confidence on the ball and how she saw the game. She attacked that challenge early on so well, it has been underappreciated because a lot of players don’t like moving positions. She’ll do anything for the benefit of the team.”

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We’d also be remiss not to mention another pivotal Thorns midfielder: Japanese international Hina Sugita.

Sugita joined the Thorns from INAC Kobe Leonessa in January 2022 and while taking time to adjust to a new language and culture, she has fit like a glove into the Thorns’ locker room.

“She’s really good at writing down her questions and she always comes for extra explanations afterward,” said coach Rhian Wilkinson during the Challenge Cup, when asked about Sugita’s adjustment to the NWSL. “That alone speaks to her character.”

GOAL | Hina Sugita scores game-winner against Racing

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Portland’s midfield engine, Sugita played in all 22 regular season games scoring five goals and finishing with four assists. She picks her moments, too, scoring the game-winning goal against Racing Louisville on July 29 and tacking on an emphatic second goal in the Thorns’ 2-0 win against the Orlando Pride on September 9.

Sugita is everywhere the Thorns need her and was undoubtedly one of the best under-the-radar additions to an NWSL club last offseason.

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Will Crystal Dunn’s return have the Hollywood-style ending it deserves?

156 days after Crystal Dunn gave birth to her son, Marcel, in May, she sent the Thorns back to the NWSL Championship in dramatic style, scoring a goal into the top corner of the net in second-half stoppage time. It’s a script so wild, screenwriters in Hollywood would struggle to conjure it.

“She should be the poster woman for everything,” said Wilkinson last weekend.

Dunn trained with the Thorns up until the final weeks of her pregnancy. Even when she passed the point of being able to jog around, she would get up and pass the ball to teammates during individual drills.

The attacker returned to the field in Portland’s September 9 victory in Orlando, brought on for the game’s final four minutes. She made her Providence Park return late in the second half of the Thorns’ 3-0 win against Racing Louisville on September 21. And, of course, she scored the winner against the Wave after Wilkinson subbed her into the game around the 62nd minute.

GOAL | Crystal Dunn blasts in the game-winner in stoppage time, books the ticket to the Championship

On Saturday, Dunn hopes to lift her third NWSL trophy. She won two league championships with the North Carolina Courage, with one coming at the expense of the Thorns. This time, she’ll suit up in black and red and close the storybook on a memorable comeback season, one of the best stories to come out of the NWSL in 2022.

“For me, there was a part that thought, you know, maybe I just take the rest of this year off,” said Dunn. “But I think for me, I always wanted to end this year the best way that I could. To me, that was working extremely hard to get back on to the pitch. And even if I was only available for one game this year, it would’ve been worth it.”

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Don’t forget about the defense

Portland’s league-best offense generates headlines, but its defense has been just as solid this season. The unit has given up 24 goals in 22 total games, the third best figure in the NWSL this season.

Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelli Hubly form a formidable spine while Natalia Kuikka and Meghan Klingenberg frequently lock down the wide spaces. Behind them stands Bella Bixby, who has made 63 saves and kept nine clean sheets.

With bucket loads of talent in front of them, the defense has excelled under the radar. It will need to step up one last time this Saturday against the Current.