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Portland Thorns Win NWSL Championship to End Turbulent Season

WASHINGTON — When the Portland Thorns won the National Women’s Soccer League title on Saturday night, they celebrated the way champions do.

The moment they beat Kansas City Current, 2-0, on a clear, cold night in front of more than 17,000 fans, the Thorns players sprinted toward each other with open arms, shouting and smothering each other with bear hugs.

Then they squeezed onto a small awards stage to accept their trophy — a third league title in the N.W.S.L.’s 10 years of existence — and proceeded to lift it above their heads in jubilation as shiny streamers floated through the air around them. Next, they brought the trophy to a section of the stands packed with Thorns fans — some of the most vocal and loyal in the entire league — who wildly cheered them.

But the owner of the Portland Thorns, Merritt Paulson, wasn’t on the field for the celebration, and this is an example of why the team’s championship story differs from the typical one. For the Thorns, winning the N.W.S.L. title is the end to a tumultuous year for both the franchise and the entire league.

Paulson skipped the game after resigning under pressure earlier this month as the team’s chief executive. He stepped down in the wake of criticism of his mishandling of a sexual misconduct case involving a former Thorns coach, and his subsequent failing to fully cooperate with an investigation into leaguewide abuse.

An investigative report was made public three weeks ago, and it found systematic abuse within the league and mistreatment of female players on all levels of the sport. On Friday, Jeff Plush resigned as chief executive of U.S.A. Curling, following criticism of his leadership as the chief executive of the National Women’s Soccer League from 2015 to 2017. The investigative report from U.S. Soccer found that Plush did not cooperate with the inquiry.

The players “would have been within their rights to just completely collapse after these last few months, like the timing of the report coming out,” Thorns Coach Rhian Wilkinson said after the game. “And it was hard. It was really hard. But for me, that leadership, they were so strong and so clear on the direction they wanted to go in.”

As Wilkinson said those words, loud, thumping music began playing in the room next door beneath Audi Field. The Thorns players were laughing and dancing in their locker room.

Their season could have gone very wrong once it had dawned on them that team management couldn’t be trusted to keep them safe. But instead they chose to focus on their campaign on the field and the reason they played the game to begin with.

“We’ve gone through a lot of stuff that isn’t in the job description,” said Sophia Smith, the team’s explosive forward who was this season’s M.V.P.

She added that soccer was her “escape from all the things going on,” taking care to remind herself that she loved the sport and found it to be a beautiful way to keep the abuse scandal from distracting her from her goals.

She began Saturday’s game with the way she makes things most fun: by scoring.

Just four minutes in, Smith took advantage of an error by Current defender Elizabeth Ball to rocket toward the goal on a successful breakaway. The Thorns’ second goal came in the 56th minute, when a low, powerful cross by Yazmeen Ryan deflected off a Current defender and went into the goal, for an own goal.

Smith’s fiery play throughout the game, coupled with standout performances by veterans like defender Becky Sauerbrunn, were just two reasons the Thorns dominated. Their victory ended the championship hopes of the Current, an expansion team that was having a phenomenal year after finishing 2021 in last place.

“Portland showed why they are Portland,” Current Coach Matt Potter said. In the N.W.S.L., the Thorns have a reputation for finding ways to win.

Throughout the years, the Thorns — one of the league’s original teams — have accomplished so much, seen so much and have weathered so much as the league has become more popular and visible. This year’s playoff games have had record attendance and Saturday’s championship game was the first one shown on prime-time television.

Yet the league still struggles with sponsorship. So much so that league officials used halftime to make a pitch on the broadcast for more support, tying the N.W.S.L.’s efforts to move past the abuse scandal to its pursuit of growing women’s sports.

“We know there is a lot of work left to have a safe and sustainable league,” N.W.S.L. Commissioner Jessica Berman said. “As we celebrate this historic moment, we will make our league a better place for players.”

Meghann Burke, the executive director of the N.W.S.L. players’ association, added: “We need sponsors and supporters to help make change happen.”

Amid the constant tumult within the league, the Thorns have in some ways been an example of what women’s soccer can be, with packed games and ardent fans, only to be at the center of the scandal that has rocked all levels of the women’s game.

The recent investigation into abuse in the sport showed that girls and women get used to being yelled at, demeaned and sexualized at some point in their careers and often stay silent out of fear of getting benched or kicked off a team. That includes women playing at the top levels of the game, and also youth players.

Amid everything, despite everything, the Thorns players brought Portland yet another N.W.S.L. championship. Goalkeeper Bella Bixby said the team was able to do that because the players took specific steps to keep the abuse scandal from derailing their season.

“We knew that some days were going to be hard for some people, so when we can just come together and bear that burden with them, we were able to balance it out,” she said.

Their efforts to stick together and support each other were worth it, and the Thorns thanked their fans for standing by them through these hard times — and also the good times.

As Bixby and Smith walked out of the interview room, both were smiling wide as Smith said, “Go party!”

And then the booming music in locker room next door got louder.

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