Portland Thorns, the team at the center of the NWSL sexual assault scandal, take home the league champion
It was a busy time for the study of exactly what championship meant. In baseball especially, discussion of the inherent flaws of any playoff system seems to have come under a microscope, albeit mostly from teams it doesn’t benefit (I Love LA! ). In the field of football, MLS is considering studying their playoff system, although it’s not too fair for the better players in the long run to bolster its new offering with Apple TV. However, it will be sold as a fairer system, giving better teams more games to show their worth.
If there are championships that mean less, which is debatable, there must be championships that mean more. Portland Thorns’ win last night in the NWSL final over KC Current would be an example.
Right on the field, the Thorns were league class. Yes, they’re second to OL Reign, but by most metrics they’re the best team in the league, and it’s nowhere near that (goal difference, xG, xG difference). A 22-game season is still short enough to produce some odd results here and there that carry more weight than they should. They have the MVP of the league and perhaps the nation’s most exciting young player Sophia Smith. They probably have the most dedicated fan base in the league. Morgan Weaver and Yazmeen Ryan combined with Smith to form a trio of strikers that few teams know how to handle, which put Smith in the No. 9, who she handled so well that she brought in. gave her the MVP of the tournament and the title of playoff MVP. Although Becky Sauerbrunn may age away from the national team’s 11-team squad, she’s still more than enough to anchor a locked-in defense in the NWSL.
It’s symbolic that last night’s final was basically decided when Smith liberated It was only in the fourth minute and cold, if not arrogant, KC goalkeeper Adrianna Franch rounded up to score a home goal. It’s laborious and ruthless, which is how Smith has been looking for most of the season. The rest of the match is basically Neo removing any (irrelevant) attacks by Agent Smith with one hand while checking his watch, as KC didn’t manage a shot. on target all night. Since this is the first NWSL final on prime time and on network television, a comprehensive display of Portland excellence is a fine display and premier exhibition of the league, as such. enough.
But it’s not all. It’s not close to all. The story of the NWSL year, its final two years, cannot be told only on the field. It should have been, but it was the league’s fault that it wasn’t. Two falls in the past or already covered in first story about Paul Riley and Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly in The Athletic. This fall is the Yates report. And Portland is the epicenter of both. Portland is where Riley is accused assault, abuse and rape Shim and Farrelly. (Riley denies the allegations.) Portland’s ownership and hierarchy have for the first time shown indifference, if not mockery, of those claims and many other players. Portland himself didn’t say anything when Riley got another job in the league as a coach. While Yates’ reporting is no less harsh or makes anything less horrifying about Chicago or Louisville, it still feels like Portland is where things are still fascinating.
Which was especially disheartening given the city’s love or soccer and its support for the Thorns. If the sport has a heartbeat in this country, it’s probably in Portland, and certainly the Northwest. The Thorns were the rare team where it felt like the NWSL team got the same support from the fans as the MLS team does.
Certainly something was broken with the release of Meg Linehan’s story last year and the Yates report this one. Fans called for the immediate removal and sale of the team from Merritt Paulson, who has stepped down from active involvement with the team but remains owner of both the Thorns and Timbers. Other execs have left after it was revealed how little they did to protect players or even the active roles they took in hurting more. Fans weren’t sure if they should still show up and give over the money to an organization that couldn’t pass the very first hurdle for any organization, the safety of its employees. What actually were they supporting now?
But of course, sports aren’t your typical business. The bond is between the fans and players, and fans to other fans. If anything, the players needed the fans more now and vice versa. The cowardice, inaction, and indifference of some execs shouldn’t break what is the basis of sports and fandom, nowhere stronger than Portland. That’s the call before the playoffs started, and was very attentive.
While almost no current Thorns players were on the team when Riley was still around, it’s not easy to spot what their bosses did. They must have wondered who they were playing for, and whether they would be protected in the future if needed. Suddenly, maybe getting into the box didn’t matter. And they got on with it, surging through the thorny San Diego Waves with one last minute Crystal Dunn thunder to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win and then make it to the final.
Thorns victory will not erase history, nor solve club and league problems. Still, it feels a lot more than a team that won just two playoffs after being one of the strongest in the league during the regular season. There’s something about this that highlights dedication and perseverance, both on the field and in the stands. Hopefully Thorns and maybe the league as a whole can look back on it as a marker of when the league and fans decided it would just support the best in league and sport instead. Bring the worst. Both did it bravely.