The strangest of seasons culminated with a rough-and-tumble challenge for the Portland Thorns.
In a game that was more about physical toughness than about finesse, the Thorns emerged Saturday, Oct. 10, with a 2-1 win over their rivals OL Reign at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Washington. Then Portland celebrated.
A pair of penalty kicks converted by Christine Sinclair capped the Thorns' 2020 schedule and made them champions of the National Women's Soccer League Fall Series.
Sinclair converted from the spot once in each half on Saturday. The 37-year-old Canadian star scored six goals over the final three games, and afterward said she will be back for more in 2021.
With the victory, the Thorns had three wins and a tie in the NWSL Fall Series, clinching the Verizon Community Shield with 10 points in the four-game competition. Portland needed to win Saturday to finish ahead of the Houston Dash (3-1-0, nine points), which finishes second.
As a result, Mimi's Fresh Tees, a Portland business that produces shirts that highlight social justice, will received a $25,000 grant from Verizon.
"It's amazing when you're fighting for something bigger than just yourselves," Sinclair said. "It's going to be great to be able to give back to our community. It's always great to beat the Reign, so to beat the Reign and win the Fall Series is a little extra special."
A Reign side missing several key players — including former Portland Pilot Megan Rapinoe, who sat out all 2020 NWSL competitions — was aggressive around the pitch start to finish, an approach Thorns coach Mark Parsons did not enjoy.
"It was a really tough, horrible game. There wasn't much football being played," Parsons said. "We still tried to play, but we managed that and dug in and really showed what we're made of and showed our mentality."
Two of the 15 Reign fouls came inside the penalty area, with Amber Brooks cited for chopping down Simone Charley in the first half and for dragging down Lindsey Horan in the second.
The first of those came late in the first half and put Portland on top 1-0. Sinclair sent goalkeeper Casey Murphy diving to her left and converted for her fifth goal in the last three games.
It was Charley who earned the penalty. Charley did a great job controlling the ball near the top of the 18, heading a long forward ball from Lindsey Horan into the air and getting to the second ball first. Charley shrugged off one challenge and then was crashed into by Brooks.
It was Brooks who got credit for the tying goal. A shot from Shirley Cruz deflected off of Brooks, giving Portland goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom no chance and tying the game moments into the second half. The play started from a free kick that was headed clear but landed at the feet of Cruz for a shot that pin-balled into the goal.
Sinclair nearly answered right away, but Murphy was able to grab a half-volley. Murphy also came up big on a one-on-one chance for Charley in the 67th minute.
But a couple of minutes later, Brooks was cited for dragging Horan to the ground as they battled for position on a Portland corner kick.
This time, Murphy guessed right. But Sinclair's well-struck ball found the side netting beyond the reach of the diving goalkeeper.
Parsons at halftime told his team it was a compliment that Reign wanted to turn the match into a kick-fest.
"I thought the difference between the two teams was, on this tight field, once we got into the opposition's half, I thought we showed good quality to create chances," Parsons said. "That first half, we could have scored two, three goals in that first 20 minutes and were unfortunate not to."
Specifically, Murphy made a kick save on a Horan shot in the 10th minute and a Sophia Smith shot in the 15th minute caught the post.
Eckerstrom was credited with three saves and finished with a 4-1–1 record in 2020, which began with Eckerstrom third on the depth chart before injuries to Adrianna Franch and Bella Bixby.
Parsons said the weird goal out of nowhere for the Reign at the beginning of the second half summed up the Thorns' 2020.
"Nothing's been easy, for everyone, of course, but especially for this team," Parsons said, pointing to challenges that included injuries, wildfire smoke leading to a condensed schedule and more. "The team said, 'No we're not having that. We're going to step up.'"
One player who personified that was defender Becky Sauerbrunn. The U.S. Women's National Team standout finally got her wish to play for Portland this season, only first COVID-19, then an injury, disrupted her plans. Saturday was the first time Sauerbrunn played a full match for the Thorns since suffering a hip injury on June 27 in Portland's first match of the NWSL Challenge Cup. She called it the worst injury she has experienced and was glad she was able to contribute at the end of a weird season.
"I'm feeling really thankful," Sauerbrunn said. "It's an absurd year. It's a tragic year. So, for us to play for something and winning, and now we get to donate a lot of money to a local company and do some good during a year that's been really tragic.
"We're really proud," she added. "For me personally, I'm just really elated that I get to be with this team and I get to play soccer."
The message from Parsons and players throughout 2020 has been that this season was about establishing a strong culture and starting to build a club that can play entertaining soccer while having consistent success. Parsons said this Thorns team reached a level of togetherness off the field and toughness on it that allowed Portland to win a battle like Saturday's — the kind of test that his 2018 and 2019 teams struggled with.
"I don't mind that we had to dig deep tonight to be able to give back to our community," Parsons said. "Nothing's been easy in 2020. I think it's fitting that this night was really, really hard and nothing was going to stop us from giving back to our fanbase and our club, but more importantly, Mimi's Fresh Tees and hopefully a lot more businesses, community partners that we want to continue to support and elevate the voice (and) message of African Americans in this country."
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