After letting the 2016 NWSL Championship slip away from them last year in a dramatic showdown against the eventual champions Western New York Flash, the Portland Thorns came back in 2017 determined to avenge themselves. Although there were a handful of struggles along the way, the Thorns would earn their second championship title over the same team that ended their postseason run.
No Heath? No Problem
When the 2017 season started, only four of the original Portland Thorns who hoisted the trophy in 2013 remained. After last season, the whole roster was ready to make a championship run once again. This time though, they would have to do it without one of Portland’s key players: Tobin Heath. Heath, one of four original Thorns players, was out with a back injury for almost all of season. Without one of the most creative and crafty midfielders in the game, the Thorns all took turns stepping up and getting the job done despite the absence of Tobin Heath; players like Hayley Raso, Nadia Nadim, and Meghan Klingbenberg all had their shining moments with the Thorns this year.
The Thorns started their 2017 off strong with a 2-0 win over the Orlando Pride at home, showing their dominance once again. They took their confidence into the following week, where they faced the North Carolina Courage on the road. This was the first meeting between the teams since the 2016 semi-final - when they were still known as the Flash - but the Thorns could put forth their revenge, losing 1-0.
They improved their standings by collecting a series of draws and wins as the season went on. The Thorns’ six game unbeaten streak came to an end at home by the hands of Sky Blue FC. This loss came just a week after the Thorns took the 2-0 win over Sky Blue in New Jersey. From there it was a mix of results for Portland, who couldn’t find consistency as the season continued. For every win, there was a draw, for every draw a loss - it was up and down for a little bit.
It wasn’t until the end of season that the Portland Thorns would find their stride. They went unbeaten in their last six games of the season, earning five wins and one draw. In the midst of all of this, original Thorns player Meleana Shim parted ways with the club, opting to play overseas in Sweden and leaving only three original Thorns on the roster.
They went on to host their semifinals match, making quite the statement in a 4-1 win over the Orlando Pride to punch their ticket to the NWSL Championship. There, they faced the North Carolina Courage with a vengeance, and they were able to clinch their second title in club history with a 1-0 victory.
In regular season play, the biggest win for the Portland Thorns was their 1-0 victory over the North Carolina Courage on July 15. It was the organization’s 100th match ir club history, and they became the only team in the league to shut out the Courage this season. They also registered clean sheet number seven out of 11 for the season. It made the playing field even, so to speak, with the Courage taking a win against the Thorns at home and now the Thorns returning the favor at Providence Park. These two results would set up the tension between the two teams - in addition to the already built-in tension from last season - that lead up to the final.
The Thorns’ biggest defeat came in mid June when Sky Blue FC snapped their first unbeaten streak at Providence Park. Not only did the Thorns let in three goals at home, but the first goal came in the first minute of play by Racquel Rodriguez; this is now officially the fastest goal scored in NWSL history. The They were only able to answer back with one goal which came in stoppage time by Christine Sinclair. It was their first loss at home for the season, as well as their first home loss since July 9, 2016. This loss also sent the Thorns into a series of inconsistent games.
An anchor for the Portland defense and notorious for her clutch save, blocks, and clearances, Emily Menges has truly come into her own in the Rose City. She played in 23 matches this season, starting all of them. In her fourth season with the Thorns, Menges was a big part of the Portland defense this season, who recorded 11 shutouts and posted a .83 goals-against average. She was also a crucial part of the back line that let in a league-low of only 20 goals this season. On top of the team efforts, Menges also finished the season second overall in the league with 70 interceptions and 149 recoveries, and fourth in clearances with 104 among all other defenders.
Player with an off year
One of the original Thorns still on the roster, Allie Long was not as impactful as she has been in previous seasons. Being left off the World Cup roster lit a fire in Long, and she took the NWSL by storm in 2015 and even in 2016, when she made the roster for the Rio Olympics. Despite these impressive seasons she played in Portland, 2017 wasn’t as special. By the end of the season, Long wasn’t even in the starting lineup. She came off the bench late for both post-season matches. She hasn’t been as impactful as we’ve come to see her, but hopefully she returns in 2018 with a new fire underneath her.
Improvements for 2018
The Portland Thorns are losing forward Nadia Nadim and midfielder Amandine Henry going into next season. Nadim is now playing for Manchester City Women and Henry has returned home to France where she has signed a new contract with her former club Lyon. These two internationals were big parts of the Thorns’ championship run this season, and finding players of their caliber will be difficult. Going into 2018, the Thorns will hope for a healthy Tobin Heath, who missed out practically all of regular season and then suffered an ankle injury in the championship. It will be interesting what head coach Mark Parsons has up his sleeve in terms of roster moves in hopes of winning another championship with the club.