Amanda Loman/Getty Images; Steph Chambers/Getty Images
A tumultuous season in the country’s top women’s professional soccer league comes to a close on Saturday night, with the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) championship game pitting the Portland Thorns against the surprising Kansas City Current.
The game begins at 8:00 PM ET at a neutral site – Audi Field in Washington, DC.
The Thorns are one of the league’s most successful and popular teams – this is their fourth appearance in the title game. Portland won the NWSL championships in 2013 and 2017.
The Current were an expansion team last year and finished last in the league. The start of 2022 was no better as KC went winless in their first five games. But then a 13-game unbeaten run put the Current in position for a memorable turnaround from worst to first.
How did they get here
KC qualified for the finals with an impressive upset win over NWSL power OL Reign.
The Seattle-based Reign won this season’s NWSL Shield, which means they had the best record, and their lineup was filled with U.S. National Team stars like Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle. But in front of a record 21,491 fans at Seattle’s Lumen Field, the Reign couldn’t convert their offensive pressure (outshooting KC 16-8, 14 corners to 2 current, and 61% possession) to no scores against KC goalie AD Franch and Current secured a 2-0 semi-final victory.
Meanwhile in their semifinal matchup featured the veteran Thorns heading into overtime with another NWSL newcomer — the San Diego Wave’s first-year expansion team.
But in the break, another game of the US national team, Crystal Dunn, shot right-handed into the San Diego goal to give Portland a 2–1 lead that held on for the win.
A show of solidarity
The goal sparked an already packed crowd of more than 22,000 at Portland’s Providence Park, the second-largest in league playoff history.
The large, enthusiastic crowds in Portland and Seattle were a welcome sight for the players, who endured the release earlier in October of a damning report detailing systemic abuse in the NWSL and elsewhere in women’s soccer.
Portland figured prominently in the report and investigation led by former Acting US Attorney General Sally Yates. The former Thorns coach and executives, including team owner Merritt Paulson, were implicated in the scandal.
As Portland’s game against San Diego approached, Thorns players recognized those in their loyal fan base who chose to stay away from games in protest. But several players begged fans “on the fence” to show up.
“Whether you support the Thorns individually, any other team in the league or women’s soccer around the world, we need you now more than ever,” said the Portland goalkeeper. Bella Bixby tweeted. “Seeing our supporters pack the stadium lets us know that you carry this heavy burden WITH us. You can see that showing up on match day is a show of solidarity with the women on the field who are punished time and time again for their actions.” Ask yourself, do you love and support the players in this game more than you hate the front office?”
Jubilant Portland fans answered in the affirmative — the Thorns, Current and NWSL hope that same sense of solidarity and desire to see great soccer will draw a big crowd in Washington, DC on Saturday.
The battle for prime time
For those who aren’t there, it will be easy to follow across the country. CBS will televise the game in its first-ever prime time slot. It will also be streamed on Paramount Plus and streamed on Twitch for an international audience.
As is often the case in top women’s sports, the turning point came only after disappointment and criticism.
The championship game was originally scheduled for 9 a.m. in Portland.
“Not only is it hard as a player to prepare for a game that starts at that time,” said former Kansas City defender Rachel Corsie, “but I just don’t think it’s putting the game at the stage it deserves. You want it to stand on its own and it spoke for itself, and it needs to be on in prime time and get an opportunity to create an atmosphere and be an experience that fans can enjoy.”
This argument ultimately prevailed. And now the NWSL and its players are hoping 90 minutes (or more) of top-flight women’s soccer in prime time will provide relief for the scandal-plagued league, promising healing through change.