Roses rising: Portland Thorns' 2017 NWSL title caps 2 years of dominance
It was a celebration two years in the making, one that was unexpectedly delayed this time last fall.
Flashback to 2016 heartbreak
Those regrets ended with today’s final whistle in Orlando, one that not only capped a 1-0, title-winning victory over the North Carolina Courage but rewarded a run of excellence that extends well beyond a single season. It goes all the way back to the first game of last season, when a squad reshaped after successive disappointments finally started living up to Portland’s hype.
Between last year’s NWSL Shield, this year’s second-place regular-season finish and their new league title, the Thorns have been the best team in the NWSL for the past two seasons, with Saturday’s victory giving most their first reason to take notice.
Officially, Portland is now the only team to win three major NWSL honors (two titles, one Shield). But even if you combine North Carolina’s achievements with its predecessor’s, Western New York, the Thorns’ run is more remarkable for being focused on the same core.
That core is built around Christine Sinclair, the compass of the club since day one. She, Tobin Heath and Allie Long are the only players who remain from the 2013 title-winner, but they have played major parts. And to exclude general manager Gavin Wilkinson and owner Merritt Paulson from recognition would ignore two major factors behind the team’s success.
That success has seen the Thorns go 28-9-10 over two seasons – since its huge, post-2015 overhaul – but they haven’t done it the way most would assume. From the outside, most would see a team with Sinclair, Heath and Lindsey Horan and assume Portland is an attacking juggernaut.
Though the team’s never lacked for goals, it’s been games like Saturday’s, where the defense carried the load, that truly define the Thorns’ success. In each of the last two regular seasons, Portland’s posted the league’s best defensive record. And in holding two prolific attacks to one goal in this year’s playoffs, the Thorns reminded the league where their foundations really lie.
The commonality here, be it in the timing of the Thorns’ success or the way in which they’ve achieved it, is Mark Parsons. Coming over from the Washington Spirit before last season, where the Thorns’ boss had built an above-average defense with far less talent, Parsons stripped his back line to its bolts, simplifying the defensive scheme for an incoming rookie (Emily Sonnett) and a third-year player who had yet to flash her full potential (Emily Menges).
Since then, formations have changed, international commitments have come and gone, stars have missed seasons and attackers have sputtered. But the building blocks Parsons put in place 19 months ago have never crumbled. The down points have only been so low. With the NWSL’s best defense also being its most consistent, Parsons’ Thorns have established a very high floor.
It was something that was overlooked earlier this year, when Portland’s Heath-less attack left the impression the team might regress from its 2016 heights. In a sense, it did, but there was never a chance a bottom would fall out. Consistently in the NWSL’s top four, even during its worst moments, Portland finished this season’s first half with 18 points in 12 games. The run may have cost the team a second straight Shield, but as NWSL history shows, winning the Shield is irrelevant in October.
The Thorns never trailed through this year’s postseason. They never even allowed an opponent to pull even, once they went in front. Over 180 minutes, they were only level with their opponents for 62, leaving a death-sentence-esque feel whenever Portland took a lead.
That feeling goes well beyond the playoffs. Over two years, in 47 games under Parsons, the Thorns have only allowed 44 goals. Yet still, when you think of the glamor of Portland, the team that’s been touted as the league’s most talent from its inception, you still think of the players going toward goal.
In today’s victory, though, we sew that Menges can be just as important as Sinclair. Sonnett can be just as valuable as Horan, and Adrianna Franch may be as important to the Thorns’ stability as a player like Heath. Their talents may not be as eye-catching and they certainly aren’t stars of the same brightness, but in the ethos Parsons starting instilling 19 months ago, they’re just as important as any fully established international.
Looking back from Saturday’s heights, that is the key to where Portland is now. If the team’s first three years showed the club that elite talents can achieve anything, for better and worse, than the last two years have proven what a broader base of talent can do.
Perhaps this two-year run hasn’t been as dynamic as Kansas City and Seattle was from 2014-15, and maybe, in terms of three-year runs, Portland needs another year to match what FCKC once was. But right now, after this slow build from Parsons’ first practice, there is no way to look at the Thorns’ 2017 success in isolation. Instead, it’s hard not to think about how long this could go on.