WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Portland Thorns defeated the Kansas City Current 2-0 to win their third NWSL Championship in front of 17,624 fans Saturday at Audi Field.
“Today was not about doing anything extra,” coach Rhian Wilkinson said after the game. “It was about showing up and playing with … real joy.”
But as I watched the perennial powerhouse Thorns swell with pride and tears under the gold streamers and whizzing fireworks, I realized I’ve written this story before.
Team A in the professional women’s sports league came together during difficult times to defeat Team B, overcoming not only the opponent but off-field issues perpetuated by their own organization.
It’s like the world’s worst real-life adlib.
In fact, I covered a similar story last year when the Washington Spirit defeated the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in the 2021 NWSL championship.
In that instance, the Spirit’s narrative included firing coach Richie Burke after allegations of verbal and emotional abuse, and an owner, Steve Baldwin, refusing to relinquish control of his team despite perpetuating that abuse.
The Red Stars were just at the beginning of their public reckoning with similar accusations against coach Rory Dames, but he was allowed to work the final before resigning.
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I’m a firm believer in the power of sports. I wouldn’t work where I do if I didn’t. For me, football, soccer and hockey gamesallowed me to escape my own traumatic experience of dealing with a sick parent as a child. The arena was a place for me to feel the emotions of life without such real-world consequences. It brought joy, yes, but also a safe place to experience a wide range of feelings.
What has happened in the NWSL — and frankly women’s and men’s leagues around the world, as Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson pointed out before the game — has robbed players and fans of the unbridled joy soccer can bring.
“It’s a horrible thing to say. This is not only about soccer. It’s not about the NWSL,” Wilkinson said before the game. “It’s not just about women. It’s everywhere. And it’s a problem everywhere.”
Portland said it focused on playing with joy this season, but also mentioned this reality of having to overcome.
“We talk about it a lot as a team, just to play with as much joy as we can,” Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby said. “It’s easy to go into a game and get stressed and forget that this is a game, that it’s meant to be loved and meant to be beautiful.”
The “team of destiny” story surrounding the Spirit last year was just the lede. Former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley, who was with the Thorns from 2014-15, was fired after reports of sexual coercion and abuse.
Last year, Portland had to publicly deal with reading about their former teammate Mana Shim’s abuse and the Thorns’ front office and the league’s failure to protect her.
Players across the NWSL continued performing on the field this year, faced with interviews for two independent investigations, one by U.S. Soccer and the other by the NWSL and NWSLPA. Those players re-lived traumatic experiences for the sake of future generations — just to go through the emotions again when U.S. Soccer released its report three weeks before the championship.
“Last year, they had the same challenge. You could so easily break apart as a team and lose connection with one another, and they really chose to come together,” Wilkinson said. “This year has been a continuation of that through the hardships.”
I accept that adversity is part of the game. It is a core value of sports. And in some cases, that strife transcends sports and comes from communities uniting in sport after horrible tragedy. Jesse Owens dominating during an Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany comes to mind. George Bush throwing the first pitch during Game 3 of 2001 World series. The U.S. women’s national team winning the 2019 World Cup in the thick of a fight for equal pay.
But the NWSL players’ fight has been going on for a decade.
Thorns striker and NWSL MVP Sophia Smith talked about finding a happy place on the field and shutting out what’s going on outside during the 90 minutes of play. But at some point, it becomes too much. Women athletes, in this case women soccer players in the United States, have constantly had to face their opponent on the field and then join together off it to hold their own organization accountable.
It’s exhausting. For the players. For the fans. For me.
I would love to write about the energetic atmosphere before the game, when Kansas City’s ownership crashed a group of Current fans doing a TV interview. Or about Smith taking advantage of the Kansas City’s defense in the 4th minute for an opening goal worthy of her MVP season. Or the deafening roar of the crowd when Thorns attacker Crystal Dunn took the field in the 73rd minute, continuing her dominant return from giving birth earlier this year.
Instead, I feel it necessary to continue to bring light to what is still happening in the NWSL.
Merritt Paulson and Arnim Whisler still own shares of the Thorns and Red Stars, respectively. The Spirit is still climbing back from two years of mismanagement, and players are only now receiving control over their careers with the introduction of free agency this offseason.
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NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said Friday, “the responsibility of off-field issues, tends to trickle down to the people who are affected,” but her goal is to have the league and teams bear more of that responsibility.
As they should.
The U.S. Soccer report came out Oct. 3, but the joint investigation between the NWSL and NWSLPA is ongoing. Berman classified the current stage of the process as “pursing the facts,” before taking action. She repeated the words “transparency” and “honesty.”
But the league has long lost the benefit of the doubt, and it knows that.
“We can pretend that everything is fine in the places where people are not bringing forward concerns and complaints,” Berman said. “But everything, I can assure you, is not fine.
“Most likely, there are people who have concerns who are scared of retaliation and scared to bring forward their concerns, and that is not the outcome we are seeking.”
What I’ve heard from national sponsors, the league’s commissioner and players during the 2022 championship weekend makes me believe last year was a false start. The NWSL tried to move forward before addressing why things broke down.
This year, people are talking about what happened and why it can’t happen again.
That’s why I feel hopeful.
Because it’s no longer fans and players talking about what went wrong, spelling out the trauma or shouting alone from the rooftops. It’s sponsors, the league office and team owners, such as the Spirit’s Michelle Kang and the Current’s Angie and Chris Long, who built a state-of-the-art training facility and broke ground on the first women’s soccer-specific stadium in the country this year.
I am hopeful, but skeptical. Like I said, we’ve been here before.
For now, congratulations to Portland Thorns players on another title. And to the Current, who have turned a last-place finish a year ago into a second-place triumph.
You deserve every ounce of joy — as do the rest of this league’s players and fans.
“We have put in so much work this whole season,” Smith said after the NWSL Championship. “We have gone through a lot of stuff that isn’t in the job description, so it just felt really rewarding. I just felt so proud of our team.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Portland Thorns latest NWSL team to overcome trauma, win championship