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Thorns put all the pieces together for NWSL Championship magic

Thorns captain Christine Sinclair lifts the 2022 NWSL Championship trophy, the club's third. (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

As the Portland Thorns cruised to the club’s third NWSL championship on Saturday, one could be forgiven for thinking they’d been in that position many times before. Despite it being the team’s first championship appearance since 2018, they appeared calm, well-drilled and cerebral as they contained the Kansas City Current for 90 minutes in a 2-0 win.

Any championship performance is a culmination of a year of work, and first-year coach Rhian Wilkinson added her own spin to the Thorns’ pre-established culture to guide them through a tumultuous month off the field. It could be hard to tell from the outside how the significance of the Yates report, which implicated a number of Thorns executives in perpetuating a culture of abuse in the NWSL, was affecting the players on the ground.

The response seen in primetime on CBS was a comprehensive performance by Portland and a result that was never in doubt. The Thorns’ back five — led by now three-time NWSL champion Becky Sauerbrunn, who only misplaced five passes all night — didn’t take a wrong step, and the Current finished the match without a single shot on goal. Portland sustained pressure throughout the match, winning the ball and possessing to recycle attacks and force the Current into exhausting themselves while chasing.

“Honestly, just a fun game to play,” Final MVP Sophia Smith said after the match, who provided her team with a signature moment just minutes after kickoff. One of the best players in the world with the ball at her feet, Smith wasted no time when given an opportunity, giving the neutral crowd of over 17,000 fans a reason to cheer early.

Benefitting from a slip by Kansas City center back Elizabeth Ball, the 22-year-old rounded AD Franch to tap the ball into the back of the net in the fourth minute. Smith isn’t always the most demonstrative goal celebrator, but in a match of this significance, even she had to give a little shrug to the camera before being mobbed by her teammates.

Smith said that her shrug seen across the country was in response to anyone who thought she didn’t deserve to be league MVP. In the stadium, the moment also represented a certain amount of inevitability. Early goals can open things up and signal that even more goals are coming. But while Kansas City quickly pushed for an equalizer, they had trouble finding one another, and the Thorns firmly controlled the run of play for the next 85 minutes.

The Thorns’ ability to dictate the terms of the match came from veterans and young talent alike. While Portland’s established leaders have a wealth of championship experience, the starting XI for Saturday’s game looked almost unrecognizable to the group that won the team’s last title in 2017. Rookie Sam Coffey held court in the defensive midfield, and second-year forward Yazmeen Ryan provided a spark throughout the match that gave Smith room to operate.

“What can I say? Unbelievable,” Wilkinson said of the way her young players stepped up. “Sam was a rookie for a day, and then took off. And Yaz has had … I think last year she was just trying to find her feet, and then you see her coming alive.”

While her name didn’t make it onto the scoresheet, it was Ryan’s cross into the box that the Kansas City defense mishandled into the back of the net and sealed the game in the second half.

Wilkinson did make one major change to her starting XI from last week’s semifinal, reintroducing Christine Sinclair into the starting midfield in place of Hina Sugita, after the longtime captain came off the bench against San Diego. The move was purely tactical, with Wilkinson wanting to lean into Sinclair’s experience at the tip of the midfield supporting two attackers.

She joked after the match that since her team won, her slight personnel adjustment must have been the right decision. Sugita has had an excellent season for Portland, but her manager wanted very clear roles against Kansas City’s packed midfield, and Sugita mostly thrives as a box-to-box midfielder who can also drift wide. Wilkinson also thought that Raquel Rodriguez was peaking at exactly the right time, which made the No. 8 hard to drop in favor of anybody else. The Thorns dominated the midfield, proving their manager right.

“What a privilege to have Hina Sugita on the bench,” Wilkinson said, noting that the Japanese international made a huge impact in the second half. That willingness to rotate has been one of Portland’s great strengths this season. Their ability to put fresh legs into the match as Kansas City grew tired put the match out of reach long before the final whistle blew.

It’s clear that Wilkinson has more than earned her squad’s respect, with Smith telling reporters after the match that it was “bulls–t” Wilkinson wasn’t nominated for NWSL Coach of the Year.

“I think it’s easy to overlook, because historically, this is a successful club,” Portland goalkeeper Bella Bixby said. “But it’s not easy to come in and implement your style of play, how you want your players to play, get player buy-in from the start, all of those things.”

Guided by Wilkinson’s steady hand, the champion Thorns also served as a reminder of the lifeblood of the NWSL: the players. On the field Saturday, Portland’s players showed the same chemistry that has carried them through a difficult year. As a club, Portland has come to represent many different things, and the players were put under a level of pressure that Wilkinson acknowledged could have warranted a full collapse.

Instead, they played for each other and for the supporters that have been with them every step of the way.

“We all love soccer,” said Smith. “So for me personally, soccer was like an escape from all the things going on. I just looked forward to going to practice every day, seeing my teammates.”

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