The Portland Thorns came into last night's match against the Sky Blue FC needing only a draw to claim its first ever NWSL shield. Instead, they scored three straight goals including a brace from midfielder Allie Long, a goal by midfielder Lindsey Horan and an NWSL record 10th assist of the season by midfielder Tobin Heath to secure three points with a 3-1 win.
With the win, the Thorns (12-3-5, 41pts) finished the season with the best record in the regular season. Portland ended the season on a four-game winning streak and posted a 4-2-4 record on the road, which was the best away record in the NWSL this season. Additionally, Portland set a new club record for the most wins (12) and points (41) in a single campaign.
Led by Heath, who is a serious candidate for player of the year, the deep and talented Thorns shut down the Sky Blue attack after conceding an early goal.
Sky Blue FC head coach Christy Holly had stated during the week that he wanted to play an attacking, wide open type of match and early on, it looked that way. In the 6th minute, forward Sam Kerr collected the ball in the midfield and fed a pass to a speeding Tasha Kai on her right. The striker then played it back to Kerr , and she raced into the penalty area before the ball was knocked away for a Sky Blue FC corner kick.
On the ensuing corner, Kelley O’Hara placed a perfectly struck ball on the far post, where Kai went up high and put away a beautiful header to give Sky Blue FC the early 1-0 advantage.
The Thorns leveled the score just before halftime. From a free-kick, Heath sent a low, curving ball into the 18-yard box and found Long, who headed past Sky Blue goalkeeper Caroline Casey.
For much of the second half, the Thorns clamped down on the Sky Blue attack, giving them no openings in which to try and level the score. However, it was Portland who scored in the 57th minute when forward Nadia Nadim’s cross found Horan, whose diving header was powered into the back of the net. Portland upped their lead to 3-1 in the 84th minute when second-half substitute Hayley Raso sent in a cross that found the feet of Long. Shielding the ball from her defender inside the six-yard box, Long turned and rifled her shot past Casey for her sixth goal of the season. The tally also secured their first NWSL shield and sent the Sky Blue thinking about what might have been.
"Obviously, this is not how we envisioned our season ending,” said Holly. “However, this season has been a huge stepping stone for our club and has us moving in the right direction. We are very fortunate that every player on our team is an excellent representative of Sky Blue FC, and we could not be any more excited about next season.”
Sky Blue fans should be excited for the direction the team is headed to. Holly deserves a mountain of credit for changing the culture of the team, making it a place players want to come to. He did it with a very young roster that is brimming with talent, including Kerr, who is easily one of the top forwards in the league if not the world. Midfielder Sarah Killion had developed into one of the best in the league as well. Injuries took their toll on his squad, as they never were able to field a consistent lineup. O'Hara is still looking for her position on this team, either as a striker or a defender. If she returns to the team next year, finding her a permanent position is vital. The goalkeeper position must also be addressed.
Whether or not the deal that sent Nadim to Portland so they could select midfielder Raquel Rodriguez, was a wise one for the Sky Blue remains to be seen, as does whether or not Tasha Kai returns next season. Kai underwent ankle surgery on Monday so her recovery will be closely monitored.
One remarkable stat was that Sky Blue Captain Christie Rampone, at the age of forty-one, played in every minute of every game this year. It is hoped she gives fans one more season.