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In Thorns-Wave heavyweight battle, NWSL legends are born

Crystal Dunn and the Portland Thorns won the NWSL title in 2022. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

While many fans enjoy the ebbs and flow of the NWSL regular season, legends are created in the postseason. Such was the game played in Portland on Sunday afternoon, a 2-1 stoppage-time win for the Thorns, during which multiple generations of stars came together to showcase what makes NWSL playoff soccer so special.

The stage was set through difficult circumstances, stemming from the release of the Sally Yates report on systemic abuse in the NWSL, and the tenacity of the players to push forward and find the joy again in running freely on a soccer pitch. Leading up to the match, the San Diego Wave and Portland Thorns carried both the weight of the past and hope for the future in a story that is constantly changing.

As more consistent media coverage and exposure pushes women’s soccer into new territory as a burgeoning business, the sport in many ways continues to be an oral tradition. The NWSL website still doesn’t list stats prior to 2016, and old broadcasts on now-defunct streaming services are nebulously archived.

Like any oral tradition, as stories are told and retold, context can shift in unexpected ways. Some moments are turned into legend, others that get in the way of a narrative diminished.

While Sunday’s match in Portland wasn’t Alex Morgan’s first trip back to Providence Park after The Athletic report that radically re-contextualized her time with the Thorns, it carried many of the same emotions after the release of the Yates report a few weeks earlier. Even without that context, the prospect of a first-year expansion club going toe-to-toe with one of the NWSL’s founding clubs provided its own significance.

The Providence Park that Morgan walked into also looked a bit different than in the past. Sponsorship messages on the video boards told a very specific story, one of supporting Portland’s players as the club’s leadership remains in flux. The Thorns also made the move in the days before the match to donate profits to local charities, offsetting concerns from the fanbase about supporting embattled owner Merritt Paulson, and supporters returned to the stands in kind (with more than a few “For Sale” signs in tow).

What followed was a great exhale and a new sense of freedom to the atmosphere, one that Portland hadn’t recaptured since before the 2020 NWSL season shut down due to the pandemic. Feeding off that energy, some of the biggest stars in the league rose to the occasion. Interestingly, Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson left longtime captain Christine Sinclair on the bench to start, possibly indicating a changing of the guard in Portland and across the league.

In a start that almost felt scripted, Morgan struck first, with a perfectly placed assist to the head of Taylor Kornieck in just the eighth minute to put San Diego ahead. Settling in after the early goal from the underdog, the over 22,000 fans in attendance knew they were in for a high-paced, end-to-end affair.

If Morgan was the headliner going into the game, the matchup between Thorns striker Sophia Smith and Wave defender Naomi Girma was the heavyweight battle that dictated the flow and provided a glimpse into the future. After Thorns midfielder Raquel Rodriguez equalized on a half-volley rocket that sent the crowd into euphoria, fans got to watch two of the next great stars of the sport try to one-up each other.

The result was a fascinating stalemate. For every moment Smith successfully dragged other defenders out of position with her dribbling, Girma was there to cover for her teammates. In 1v1 situations, Girma controlled her own center of gravity and soft first touch to cut off Smith’s angles and direct the ball in the opposite direction.

Despite Girma’s efforts, the Wave began to fade in the second half, a symptom of the extra-time quarterfinal they survived last week against Chicago. Portland took the opportunity to make a definitive substitute in the 62nd minute, bringing on Crystal Dunn for Rodriguez.

Dunn has gradually been making her way back onto the field since the birth of her son Marcel in May. And while the five months in between her giving birth and scoring the game-winning goal is legend itself, the midfielder has also exercised patience over the last month to get where she needed to be in the right moment.

Dunn had been subbed into a number of games prior to Sunday, but not with as much time to operate as she had against the Wave. She provided a new spark to Portland’s press, working to force the Wave into mistakes in the back. The Thorns’ pressure became all-encompassing, even as the seconds started ticking toward extra time.

As Sinclair’s limited minutes suggest — the star striker didn’t sub in until the seventh minute of stoppage time — Dunn is going to be incredibly important to making Portland’s midfield tick in the future. But even in the present, as she continues to work her back to full fitness, she had the quality and star power to will the Thorns to their fourth championship appearance.

As the Thorns step away from Providence Park for the last time in 2022, there are still a number of questions about exactly what kind of club they’ll return to in 2023, and results on the field shouldn’t overshadow the off-field work that needs to be done. But for the players, the story of this season is still being told, and in emphatic fashion.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.