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The Portland Thorns Are Ready To Be The NWSL’s Villains

Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Of course it was Morgan Weaver who scored the last penalty kick. Seven shots deep into a sudden-death shootout to decide the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, the Portland Thorns gave the honor of crushing Gotham FC’s dreams to their second-year quasi-rookie. Weaver, a proven wrecking ball who has already successfully appealed the showing of a red card once this year, was the ideal player to seal the game for a Thorns team that’s aiming to re-establish itself as a dominant force. She doesn’t care, she doesn’t miss, and she wasn’t going to let that trophy slip away after Portland couldn’t break a 1-1 deadlock and end the game in regulation. 

And of course it was the Thorns who ultimately won the trophy at home, as they were destined to from the beginning of this year, and also possibly the beginning of time. Despite the NWSL’s reputation as a league of parity—a selling point that stands apart in the global women’s game—the league does go through seasonal stretches of one-team dominance. The North Carolina Courage held the title of the neutral fan’s favorite team to hate in 2018 and 2019, embarrassing their closest competition with relative ease on their way to back-to-back championships over the Thorns (3-0, in Portland) and the Chicago Red Stars (4-0, at home). They used a relatively old fashioned 4-4-2 box midfield formation to overload other teams’ defenses, and the way the club operated off the field indicated they were deeply uninterested in winning hearts; they simply wanted to win big.

But while the Courage have been recent NWSL antagonists of note, the Thorns have combined with North Carolina to take nine of the last 10 domestic team trophies since 2016. The lone disruption in that two-team run of dominance belongs to the Houston Dash, who won the inaugural Challenge Cup during the league’s 2020 bubble tournament, a surreal summer competition that played out in under a month in Utah. And if the Courage’s recent humbling of the rest of the league made the Thorns a more sympathetic protagonist, their place in the NWSL’s ecosystem is now once again of the punishing favorites. As the Thorns demonstrated in this year’s Challenge Cup tournament, this is a tightly wound group that combines a club expectation of excellence with resources and the backing of the largest fanbase in women’s soccer.

There’s also something about Portland’s current aesthetic that really leans into villainy both on and off the pitch. The way they play emphasizes ball-winning, harassing other teams into coughing up possession before putting together passing sequences that render many of their goals to well-placed tap-ins. Their current home kit is also all black, with Portland’s two championship stars peering like red snake eyes over the team’s circular crest. When they debuted former North Carolina midfielder and U.S. women’s national team superstar Crystal Dunn in Portland black for the first time this spring, they clouded her in shadows to the point of obscuring her face. Acquiring Dunn from the Courage early this year was the most obvious example of Portland re-asserting control over the rest of the league, and it ended up being a warning shot backed with real results, as the Thorns cruised to the highest seed in the Challenge Cup final and the Courage receded into the middle of the pack.

And in Gotham FC, the Thorns found the ideal sympathetic underdog to vanquish on a national stage. 

Known up until this year by the nebulous moniker of Sky Blue FC, New Jersey’s Gotham was famous more for substandard off-field conditions and near winless seasons in the last five years than for any actual positive results. They replaced their general manager in early 2019, made some key coaching changes and offseason acquisitions, and are now enjoying the results of a long rebuild. The team still doesn’t have all the pieces put together, but the Challenge Cup tournament format allowed them to get exactly enough results (most significantly taking down North Carolina) to qualify for a place in the Cup final.

But for as good as Gotham’s journey has been, they couldn’t execute well enough to take Portland down. For the Thorns, the gameplan hinged on a suffocating counter-press, and they opened the scoring after international goal-scoring record holder Christine Sinclair pounced on a very bad giveaway from 2015 World Cup hero Carli Lloyd. Gotham’s center backs didn’t close quickly enough, and the Thorns looked like they might take the trophy in a walk.

However, Lloyd has been in this situation before, and though she might not be the hero Gotham deserves, she was the one they needed in the second half. In the 61st minute, she erased the deficit with a towering header over U.S. women’s national teammate Becky Sauerbrunn, not quite making up for her lack of cohesive play in the previous hour but delivering when the big moment arrived (in other words, she played like Carli Lloyd). It was Portland’s own wastefulness in front of goal that actually kept the game close, but Gotham’s tenacity on the wings and endless work-rate frustrated the hosts just enough to give the underdogs a shot at the trophy in penalties.

Except when it came down to that final moment, it wasn’t Gotham’s breakout star, Midge Purce, who got to be the face of unlikely victory, or fellow former Thorn Allie Long, or even Lloyd. The win was earned on AD Franch’s palm, which batted away a weak penalty from Nahomi Kawasumi and set up the final shot for Weaver. Despite the league’s competitiveness, this part of the story is so common that you begin to hear conspiracy theories of match fixing. But the reality of the current women’s soccer landscape is that quite frequently the better team does actually win, no matter how much of a shot you want the underdog to have. 

With the Challenge Cup tournament concluded and the 2021 regular season about to begin, the Thorns have made one thing clear: They may not be able to win your love, but they are certainly capable of winning everything else. 

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