It’s been a busy time for the study of what exactly championships mean. Especially in baseball, the discussion of the inherent faults of any playoff system seemingly have been under the microscope, though mostly from teams in whose favor it didn’t work (I Love LA!). In soccer, MLS is considering tinkering with their playoff system, though not so much to be more fair to those who have been better over the long haul so much as to beef up offerings for its new service with Apple TV. Still, it will be sold as a more fair system, giving better teams more games to show their worth.
If there are championships that mean less, which is highly debatable, then there must be championships that mean more. Last night’s Portland Thorns triumph in the NWSL final over the KC Current would be an example.
Just on the field, the Thorns were the class of the league. Yes, they finished second to OL Reign, but by most metrics they were the best team in the league, and it wasn’t all that close (goal difference, xG, xG difference). A 22-game season is still short enough to throw up some weird results here and there that carry more weight than they should. They have the league’s MVP and perhaps the nation’s most exciting young player in Sophia Smith. They have maybe the most dedicated fanbase in the league. Morgan Weaver and Yazmeen Ryan combined with Smith to make a front three that few teams knew how to handle, which kicked Smith into the No. 9 role, which she handled so well it netted her the league’s MVP and the playoff MVP trophies. While Becky Sauerbrunn may be aging out of the national team’s first-choice 11, she’s still more than enough to anchor a lockdown defense in the NWSL.
It was symbolic that the final last night was essentially decided when Smith broke free in just the fourth minute and coolly, if not arrogantly, rounded KC keeper Adrianna Franch to slot home into an open net. It was so effortless and ruthless, which is how Smith has looked for most of the season. The rest of the match was basically Neo swatting away any of Agent Smith’s (no relation) attacks with one hand while checking his watch, as KC didn’t manage a shot on target all night. As this was the first NWSL final in primetime and on network TV, a thorough display of Portland’s excellence was a fine show and exhibition of the top of the league, which is more than enough.
But it wasn’t all. It wasn’t close to all. The story of NWSL’s year, its last two years, can’t just be told on the field. It should be, but it’s the league’s fault that it isn’t. The past two falls have either been shrouded in the first story about Paul Riley and Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly in The Athletic. This fall was the Yates report. And Portland was the epicenter of both. Portland is where Riley assaulted, abused, and coerced Shim and Farrelly. It was the Portland ownership and hierarchy that first exhibited the indifference if not mockery of those and many other players’ claims. It was Portland that said nothing as Riley got another job in the league as coach. While the Yates report was no less harsh or shed anything less horrifying about Chicago or Louisville, it still felt like Portland was where everything still gravitated to.
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 was the call before the playoffs started, and well heeded.
While almost none of the current Thorns players were on the team when Riley was, it can’t have been easy to discover what their bosses had been up to. They must have wondered who they were playing for, and would they be protected in the future if need be. Suddenly, maybe making that darting run into the penalty area didn’t quite matter as much. And yet they got on with it, overcoming the spiky San Diego Wave with a last minute Crystal Dunn thunderbastard to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win and then strolled in the final.
The Thorns victory won’t erase history, nor solve the club’s and the league’s problems. Still, it feels a whole lot more than a team just winning two playoff games after being one of the league’s best through the regular season. There is something about this one that accentuates dedication and perseverance, both on the field and in the stands. Hopefully, the Thorns and maybe the league as a whole can look back on it as a mark of when the league and fans decided that it would only stand for what’s best about the league and sport instead of carrying what’s worst. Both of which it did valiantly.