The Road to the NWSL Championship Game: The Portland Thorns

After six months of play and a semifinals week, the Portland Thorns reached the NWSL Championship.

The Road to the NWSL Championship Game: The Portland Thorns
The Portland Thorns celebrate a goal in the semifinal against Orlando Pride | Source: Jenny Chuang - VAVEL USA

The 2017 NWSL season began on April 15, 2017. The Portland Thorns were one of the ten teams aiming to win as many games as possible to reach the postseason, where only the best four teams after a long and competitive season would clinch playoff spots. Two of those four teams would then play for the NWSL Championship in Orlando, Florida at Orlando City Stadium.

The North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns, after finishing 1st and 2nd place, respectively, and winning their semifinal matches, are now the two best teams vying for the title.

Portland Thorns: A Season for Redemption

For the Portland Thorns, the 2016 semifinal loss to the Western New York Flash at Providence Park one year ago, was still very much on the minds of the Thorns as they took the field to face the Orlando Pride in the 2017 semifinals. The Thorns were determined to not let 2016 repeat itself.

In front of 18,193 fans, the Thorns did not disappoint, winning in convincing fashion for those in attendance, breaking down the Pride defense and stopping the Marta-Alex Morgan combination that had been so effective in the Pride's nine-game unbeaten streak. Even though Orlando controlled much of the game after the 25th minute until the 71st minute, Portland was determined. "Our buildup play was good, but obviously they condensed the field, and we weren't able to break that down as well as we thought we were able to do," Alex Morgan said post-game, a credit to the Thorns' league-leading defense. And it was Portland who found the opportune chances to score and win 4-1 and let out a sigh of relief and celebrate with their home fans.

Hayley Raso became a regular starter for the Thorns in 2017 | Source: Jenny Chuang - VAVEL USA
Hayley Raso became a regular starter for the Thorns in 2017 | Source: Jenny Chuang - VAVEL USA

The 2017 season, at least the first half, was not all roses for Portland. Coming off disappointment in 2016 after failing to reach the championship in an NWSL Shield-winning season, the Thorns grappled a new season without Tobin Heath, who was injured playing for the national team a month before the start of the season, hurting the team's offense and creativity, and a slow start as Mark Parsons tried to replicate the success of the previous year.

At the beginning of the summer, Portland lost three out of four games, but Parsons changed tactics, including adopting a 3-4-2-1 formation and allowing Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair, and Amandine Henry to operate in the midfield and giving Australian international Hayley Raso more playing time as a forward. The tactical change worked, and Portland began to slowly climb the standings, finishing on a six-game unbeaten streak and only two points from North Carolina.

Portland finished the regular season with a 14-5-5 record, second in the NWSL and clinched a playoff berth and home semifinal game. The Thorns became the second team this season to secure a spot in the playoffs, beginning their road to Orlando for a chance to erase the heartbreak of last year's finish. Should the Thorns win, they'll add another championship to their club's history. Portland won the championship in 2013, the NWSL's inaugural season.