On Soccer: Together, Portland Thorns provide joyous finish
There were a lot of smiles. Of course there were.
Smiling is contagious when you're a champion. So, as the Portland Thorns climbed up to receive their championship medals and get their hands on the National Women's Soccer League's trophy, there was a line of happy faces.
Then Meghan Klingenberg reached the stage and burst into tears.
I was watching from afar as the Thorns defeated the Kansas City Current on Oct. 29 in Washington D.C., so I haven't had the chance to ask the veteran defender what triggered the tears. But, from 3,000 miles away, what I saw was release.
For more than a year, the Portland Thorns brand has been in the news more for the transgressions of men in power than for celebrating the strong women who wear the jersey with such pride. The scars left by Paul Riley's revolting behavior and by the way the club's leadership protected a predatory former coach, those wounds won't be healed by one trophy — or countless championships. But, in the wake of last season's first report by The Athletic and this September's release of Sally Yates' report confirming that Riley did sexually coerce players and that club leadership did cover for him, the way the Thorns players conducted themselves was impressive.
As first-year Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson has consistently pointed out, the emotional toll of the accusations and revelations has been weighing on Thorns players for more than a year. And, as talented and driven as those players are on the pitch, they are not immune to the sadness, frustration and anger that has enveloped the city's pro soccer community.
"Last year, they had the same challenge where you could so easily sort of break apart as a team and sort of lose connection with one another and they really chose to come together," Wilkinson said. "And this year has been a continuation of that. Through the hardships, they've really connected in a way that is very special."
Then, the coach described her team's performance in the championship match as nothing special.
"Today was not about doing anything extra. And that was the beautiful thing. It was about just showing up and playing with a real, as Kling always says, a real joy," the coach said, adding, "The second half was really a lot of fun to watch — just them doing their thing."
Every championship run is special, of course. But, this third one feels bigger. Recency bias? Perhaps. After all, the Thorns were the standard bearers back in 2013, the club that attracted tens of thousands of fans to a brand new product, and through those supporters showing others that a women's team can develop a bond with its community every bit as strong as a men's team.
But, Klingenberg's tearful reaction as she took her championship medal spoke volumes. In 2015, Klingenberg started for the United States team that won the FIFA Women's World Cup. She helped Portland win the 2017 NWSL title. So, she's won before. Klingenberg has been one of the more eloquent voices pushing the National Women's Soccer League to treat its players better. But for this Portland team, she has been pushing joy — leading by example and pushing teammates to enjoy approaching soccer with a growth mindset.
That mentality is why a first-time head coach willing to push the envelope worked for the 2022 Portland Thorns. Wilkinson and general manager Karina LeBlanc — the goalkeeper for Portland's 2013 championship team — embraced this club's lofty expectations and seem to relish the challenge.
Wilkinson said the buy-in from veteran players such as Klingenberg, Christine Sinclair and Becky Sauerbrunn gave her the opportunity to try different lineups and formations — and to give opportunities to younger players who blossomed.
Sam Coffey "was a rookie for about one day" according to Wilkinson. Yazmeen Ryan, who joined the Thorns midseason in 2021, not only started the final but delivered the pass that led to both Portland goals. Sophia Smith, as special a talent as there is in the sport, made the most of her early opportunity and followed her league MVP honor with the championship match MVP award.
Smith is 22 years old. Wilkinson sees a player who can get a whole lot better.
Smith, the coach said "can stop pushing now and she'll still be a very good player — one of the best players this country's produced. My job is to keep pushing her and to make sure she's the best player this country's ever produced, because she has that in her right now."
For her part, Smith is thankful for Wilkinson's demands. And, Smith said, that Wilkinson not even being considered for the NWSL Coach of the Year Award is B.S.
"With all these distractions going on, to come in and to implement her style, but also take on what we had already built with this club, is a really hard thing to do," Smith said. "And I don't think people give her enough credit for that."
It's a safe bet Wilkinson, who is reluctant to talk about her role, is just fine with the trophy her Thorns earned Saturday.
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