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Crystal Dunn And The Portland Thorns Just Need One More Moment

Crystal Dunn
Amanda Loman/Getty Images

It wasn’t possible for Crystal Dunn’s lone goal of the year to come at a better time. That is: in the last minutes of stoppage time, in the North End of Providence Park, in front of 22,000 fans rallying behind the Portland Thorns, to send her team to the NWSL final with a 2-1 win. 

It didn’t hurt that the goal itself was an absolute banger. The ball fell to Dunn’s feet—headed down by a San Diego Wave defender off a Thorns corner kick—and she hit her shot perfectly over the crowd of Portland and San Diego players in the box and past Wave goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan. 

“I was like, ‘All right, I’m just gonna whack this thing,’” Dunn said in the postgame presser. “There’s a lot of bodies in the box. You hit it hard, and you hope that there’s a deflection and it goes in the goal, or you just strike it cleanly.” Strikes don't get much cleaner.

Dunn’s goal came just five months after she gave birth to her son, Marcel. And it secured a spot in the NWSL Championship for a club that’s been in turmoil off the field for the past 13 months. It wasn't just a huge, season-changing goal, it was a euphoric moment that this team in particular desperately needed.

As the crowd erupted into cheers and red smoke, it was as if a weight had lifted off everyone in the stadium. In the press box, the person sitting next to me got out of his seat to shake my shoulders—a more subtle celebration than what the fans in the stands went for. Despite the trials of the last year, the city of Portland had rallied, and that rally was enough to send the Thorns to their first championship title game since 2018.

It’s been just over a year since The Athletic released its report on former Thorns head coach Paul Riley’s sexual abuse and coercion of his former players. Former U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates released a report on behalf of U.S. Soccer at the beginning of October, detailing instances of abuse across the league—and how those in positions of power protected and enabled the perpetrators. 

In Portland and throughout the NWSL, fans have called for accountability and reform. Former Thorns president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson, president of business Mike Golub, and owner Merritt Paulson have all been removed from their roles with the Thorns and the Portland Timbers—though Paulson remains involved as a minority owner of Peregrine Sports LLC, the company that owns operating rights to both teams. 

Just the day before the Thorns’ semifinal match against San Diego, a group called Soccer City Accountability Now protested outside Providence Park, demanding that Peregrine Sports sell the Timbers and Thorns. But come matchday, the attention was on the players, and on packing the stands for Portland’s most-attended match of the season.

“The players needed it,” Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson said after the match. “They needed to see that they’re loved and that the fanbase that is the best in the world and are—so vocal and demanding and in all the right ways—making sure that we’re leading here as a club.”

The Thorns felt the joy from the fan presence, Wilkinson said. Rocky Rodríguez, who scored a golazo to put Portland on the board earlier in the game, said that the players and fans coming together to focus on the game was healing for her.

That doesn’t erase the past couple years—and, as Wilkinson acknowledged, there were still fans that couldn’t be there or didn’t feel comfortable entering the stadium. But it does mean that, even for a couple minutes, as everyone celebrated Rodríguez’s goal and then Dunn’s goal and then the Thorns’ win, 22,000 people in Providence Park came together and found something to cheer for.

Dunn’s journey to that goal exemplifies the way that the club was able to come together. Postgame, she said she’d considered taking the whole season off after giving birth. “But for me, I always wanted to end this year the best way that I could,” she said. “To me, that was working extremely hard to get back onto the pitch. Even if I was only available for one game this year, it would’ve been worth it.”

The Thorns coaching staff supported Dunn and her return to play, Wilkinson said, but never wanted to push her to come back to the team, even if that had meant Dunn taking a year-and-a-half off. But even when she wasn’t with the team on the field, Dunn was determined to stick with them off it. She went to trainings, spent time with her team in the locker room, and did what she could to support her teammates. She's too good to be relegated to just supporting her teammates from the sidelines, though, and she proved that as soon as the decisive goal left her foot last Sunday.

“Being able to deliver that moment,” Dunn said, “was really special because it made me feel like we’re all in this together. It’s a tough year, but we have lived and survived to fight for another game.”

That game will come Saturday, when the Thorns take on the Kansas City Current for the NWSL championship. It’s not going to be an easy win for Portland. They’ll be taking on a Kansas City side that has built itself into a real contender, despite the absences of national team stars like Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis. Like the Thorns, the Current have showcased their ability to win in unexpected fashion, with their last two games won by players tallying the first goals of their professional careers.

It's been a tough season for the Thorns, and every other team in the NWSL, but Dunn's goal from the semifinal was a good reminder of why the games are still worth playing and watching. It's the moments that count, the ones that can elicit an inhuman roar from a crowd of 22,000, cause a reporter to break decorum in the press box, and deliver a dose of joy to a team that's weathered so many storms. On Saturday, the Thorns will have a shot to seize one more moment.

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