Portland blazes trail with NWSL title
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- The new league's best story -- playing home games in front of the largest crowds in women's professional team sports -- Portland Thorns FC were, for much of the season, a better soccer team on the road.
Not just better, it turned out. Saturday night, they were the best team.
Behind goals from Tobin Heath and Christine Sinclair, Thorns FC beat Western New York Flash 2-0 in the first ever championship game in National Women's Soccer League. Playing their second consecutive postseason game on the road (a fate tiebreakers decreed despite their share of a three-way tie atop the league in the regular season), Portland proved the team with the best road record in the regular season was just as good on the road in the playoffs.
Down two goals early in a semifinal against FC Kansas City, they rallied to win in overtime on the road.
Down to 10 players for most of the second half in Saturday's championship game, they dug in on the road.
Down two stars with Heath and Alex Morgan limited by injuries, well, let's not get crazy. Eighty percent of Heath or Morgan is still something of a luxury, as Saturday made clear.
But Portland's championship came with challenges.
"When our back's up against the wall, I think that's when this team shines, like you saw many times in this game and many times in our semifinal game," said Heath, who earned MVP honors. "That's a championship-type team."
Any wall against which their backs were pressed was purely metaphorical, but the game put them on their heels. On its field and with at least some of the institutional knowledge of three consecutive titles in three different leagues the past three years, even if only a few of the faces remained the same, Western New York was more aggressive and more physical in the opening 15 minutes. It didn't take them long to put Portland's goal in peril. Abby Wambach's cross in the 12th minute found Samantha Kerr's head, but Karina LeBlanc pushed Kerr's header over the crossbar.
It was the first of what proved to be an exchange of scoring changes in a rollicking opening half.
The same aggressiveness that had the Flash knocking on the door early came back to haunt them on the opening goal. Western New York's Amy Barczuk first hauled down Heath near the sideline at midfield, escaping a yellow despite a handful of jersey that she only released when Heath hit the turf.
With play established in Western New York's half, another foul gave Heath a free kick from 35 yards out. That was more than close enough for her to bury a shot, and it was never to be anything but a shot, beyond the reach of Flash keeper Adrianna Franch.
Unable to practice all week after sustaining a foot injury in last week's semifinal, Heath knew she wasn't going to play 90 minutes in the final. A player who is at her best when the ball is on the ground and she has a chance to express her creativity, Heath knew a high-stakes game against a physical opponent wasn't ideally suited. But even at less than 80 percent, as she gauged her health, the opportunity did not go wanting.
If that goal changed the complexion of the game, it changed yet again when Thorns FC defender Kathryn Williamson drew her second yellow card in the 57th minute for a foul on Wambach (Williamson escaped what could have been a straight red card minutes earlier when Wambach appeared to be in clear on goal before she was tugged down).
Down to 10 players, and for a few brief stretches down to nine players because of equipment issues that forced Allie Long to the sideline, Portland continued to defend and deny Western New York the opportunity to serve Wambach.
"If we weren't going to score under those circumstances, we probably weren't going to score today," Wambach said.
The goal that removed all doubt and sent at least some of the 9,129 fans heading for the exit came early in stoppage time, Morgan directing a ball to Sinclair, who then beat Franch low at the far post.
It was in its own way fitting the two stars who put Portland on top of most preseason predictions placed the punctuation mark on the work done by others throughout the second half. Goal scorers are always going to get the spotlight, and no one will ever begrudge it to two of the most gifted players in the world, but the goal sealed the game because LeBlanc, Rachel Buehler, Marian Dougherty, Danielle Foxhoven, Long, Meleana Shim and others, including Williamson, did their work.
It was fitting, too, that Sinclair celebrated in front of the small, vocal group of Portland fans. As much as their legions of fans at home meant, Thorns FC needed the stage to themselves to separate performance from phenomenon.
More than 16,000 fans showed up for Portland's first home game of the season. And they kept coming, fueling attendance marks that dwarfed the other teams in the league. It was a unique experience for a women's league.
"I think it was something amazing," Williamson said the day before the final of her memories of the home opener. "I've never experienced a crowd like that, I've never experienced an atmosphere like that. I think it was really cool for me, being a rookie, just being able to go out there and soak it all in."
Yet while they didn't exactly struggle in front of all those fans, the team won more often on the road.
And it kept winning in the playoffs.
"I think this team thrives off of adversity," Heath said. "People saw the fan support we had in Portland and thought it was going to be easy for us to win at home, obviously. But teams came in and it gave them extra incentive to win. They want to play in an environment like that as their home field, so I think that almost kind of worked against us in a little way. We're proud of our fans, we're proud of our city. But I think this team in general, they love that adversity."
There was no better advertisement all season for the possibility of the new league than Portland home games. But Saturday's final wasn't a bad pitch of its own. It wasn't always artistic, but it was intense and competitive.
There are undoubtedly elements of the league that need tweaking or outright changing before the second season -- it could hardly be otherwise given how quickly the first season was put together last winter.
But there is a product to work with. That much we know.
Among those in attendance in Rochester was U.S. national team coach Tom Sermanni. The team he fields against Mexico on Tuesday night in Washington, D.C. will include Erika Tymrak and Leigh Ann Robinson, two first-time call-ups who Sermanni said would have "no chance' of being there without the league in which they shone.
That is part of the league's mission, and why North American soccer federations are involved. It just wasn't what Saturday was about.
"But for me the league's about a lot more than that," Sermanni said. "It's about giving players an opportunity to play at a high level. So it's not just about the national team. In fact, it's not about the national team. It's about setting up good, solid professional clubs. It's about adding another layer of soccer in the game here at a good level."
The most solid of those clubs at the moment is the one from Portland. In the stands and on the field.