Nobody in Portland expected the Thorns’ semifinal against the Western New York Flash on Sunday to be a coronation. But as the Rose City Riveters’ massive three-panel tifo—reading “second star to the right and straight on to Houston”—showed, everyone believed a spot in the final was within reach. That belief, combined with the massive strides these shield-winning Thorns made over last season’s performance, made the team’s 4–3 loss all the more crushing.
It’s in the for-all-the-marbles nature of any playoff game to be tenser, more exciting and wilder than a regular season match, but Sunday’s game was a thriller even by those standards. “It was a crazy game,” said Thorns coach Mark Parsons. “Some crazy things went on, and it felt like we were always chasing it… But that can’t take away from what both teams did. It was an exciting game.”
The matchup, even on paper, was a killer combination: the league’s most-talented roster, one that’s been dominant most of the season, pitted against a fast, exciting upstart squad that few even expected to make the playoffs. And the secret ingredient was certainly Providence Park, which has a tendency to bring out the best, the worst and the ugliest in both teams at this time of year.
[More from Excelle Sports: WNY Flash stuns Portland Thorns FC]
The Flash, true to their name, struck lightning fast from the starting whistle, taking a mile wherever Portland gave them an inch. And if Portland lacked some of the cool competence it has displayed throughout the season—it was fighting for its life, after all—it did bring every ounce of the grit, determination and sheer cussedness we’ve come to expect. It took 12 seconds after the restart following Western New York’s second unanswered goal, in the 38′, for Christine Sinclair to put the team on her back and put one in the back of the net. “I was mad, so I just shot it, and it went in,” she later said.
Things got wilder from there, when mere moments after Sinclair’s goal, Flash coach Paul Riley was sent off, apparently for making physical contact with the fourth official (spotted in the Riveters section: a two-stick reading “we like our new dad better,” in reference to the former Thorns coach). The game only got chippier as it went on, and referee Marco Vega would hand out six yellow cards before it ended—alongside, it has to be said, more than one baffling no-call, since no important NWSL game would be complete without a dash of controversy over the officiating.
The momentum shifted back and forth at breakneck speed throughout the second half. The Flash would burn Portland’s back line on a countering play, the Thorns would steal the ball in midfield, Lynn Williams would send in a bullet, Michelle Betos would make an eye-popping save.
[More from Excelle Sports: Spirit defeat Red Stars 2–1 in extra time]
Providence doesn’t have a roof, but if it did, it would have blown clean off when Emily Sonnett equalized late in regulation time, and the defender’s ecstatic, seemingly disbelieving celebration ranks alongside Kendall Fletcher’s backflip for the most gleeful of the season. The stadium held its breath as the game went into overtime. One reporter may or may not have curled up in the fetal position.
But in overtime, the Flash’s speed and aggression got the better of Portland’s best-in-the-league defense one too many times, and even as 20,000 fans stood and thundered “PT! FC!” at an ear-splitting volume, no amount of clawing and fighting could get the Thorns out of the hole they’d dug for themselves. None of it—not Emily Menges’s and Allie Long’s late-game defensive heroics, not Lindsey Horan’s overtime goal or Tobin Heath’s refusal to quit even as she grimaced in pain late in overtime—was enough. Much of the team wiped away tears upon approaching the customary post-game circuit of the stadium.
There’s no more palpable indication of how much this game meant both to fans and the team than the devastation on the faces of many Thorns players Sunday night. All losses hurt, especially in a playoff, but this one hurt bad. “I don’t usually cry after losses,” said Meghan Klingenberg in a post-game interview, “but I was incredibly teary-eyed today. You can feel how much love the fans have, how much love the city and the club and all of our team has for each other.”
Sinclair, every inch the composed leader, put the loss into perspective. “It’s been an incredible year with incredible support… We’re going to bottle this up and remember this feeling in preparation for next year,” she said. “There’s no shame in feeling sad and bad, but we’ll do this with grace.”
[More from Excelle Sports: Whitney Engen released from USWNT]
As much as a blow as the result was to the Thorns and to the city of Portland, the game surely counts as a win for the NWSL. The atmosphere in the stadium, always electric, was on another level, and for anyone who tuned in to FS1, it was a glimpse of what women’s club soccer can and should be. “I would let them have a home game every year, just give it to them,” said Riley after the game. “I think it’s fantastic that teams can come here and get this experience. I wish the final was here, too.”
The phrase “best fans in the world” is a cliché throughout the sports world, but when it comes to the Thorns, it also happens to be the truth. The fanbase in Portland and the atmosphere at Providence Park don’t yet exist anywhere else in the world of women’s club soccer. “That’s the hardest part about the result tonight,” said Sinclair. “They deserve better. They deserve a championship game. The fans are the best in the league, this organization’s the best in the league, and you want to give them the trophies they deserve.”
Parsons plans to do just that: “We’ve tried to attack and be our best every day, every week. That starts in three or four hours, being our best in this next phase of what is a very special group at a very special club.”