It came down to the end, all the way to the last day of a long season, but for the first time since 2013, the NWSL Shield has a new home. After two years of Seattle running away with the title, it's now Portland's turn to take this piece of hardware home.
Portland had once been one of the league's great teams. In 2013, the Thorns finished the regular season locked in a three-way tie at the top of the table. Only thanks to tiebreakers did Portland end up the third place team on the table. They'd go on to win the inaugural NWSL Championship anyway, and they're still the only team that's not FC Kansas City to claim that title. But following the glory of that first season, things started to change for Portland. A disappointing showing in the 2014 semifinal sent the Thorns home without a chance to repeat as league champions. A year later, Portland failed to even make the playoffs.
The shift in Portland, from team to beat to not so much. was swift and jarring. They'd kept most of the roster that had won the title, but somehow, the Thorns seemed like a shell of their former selves. Head coach Cindy Parlow Cone, who'd led the Thorns to that first championship, took her hat and went home following the 2013 season, and Portland quickly hired a replacement with a good resume and better reputation.
Paul Riley was the manager who had taken the expansion Philadelphia Independence to two straight title games in the WPS days. Though Philly lost both times, Riley got a lot of credit for what he was able to do with a relatively cobbled together expansion team. Riley impressed so much in fact, that when Pia Sundhage left her position as the head coach of the USWNT, his was one of the names tossed around as a possible replacement. That, of course, never happened, but by the time play started in the NWSL, Riley's good reputation was still very much intact.
That's why it made sense that the Thorns would jump at the chance to bring him to Portland after Parlow Cone left. Here was a guy who'd turned nothing into something; imagine what he could do with some of the greatest players in the world.
It turned out, though, that what Riley was able to do was make a mess. Portland had played with freedom under Parlow Cone, but under Riley the Thorns often seemed stiff and stifled. Riley also loved to tinker, particularly with Portland's defense, and seemingly for no good reason other than just for the sake of doing it. Before, in Philly, he'd shoved so many square pegs into round holes because he had to. In Portland he couldn't get out of his own way.
After the disappointment of last season's sixth-place finish, the Thorns parted ways with Riley, bringing in Mark Parsons as his replacement. Parsons, like Riley, had a good reputation. He'd taken over a bad, last-place Washington team in the middle of the 2013 season, and though he couldn't get the Spirit out of the basement immediately, they were in the playoffs by the following season. Washington has been a contender ever since.
Portland was a new kind of challenge for Parsons though. What he'd done in D.C. was impressive, but the Spirit was in almost every way a different team than the Thorns. In trying to duplicate the relative success he'd had in Washington, there was a good chance he'd end up going down the same road Riley had, trying to do too much just because he could.
Parsons never fell into that trap though. Portland, from the first game of the season, has looked like a new team, or maybe a throwback to the one from 2013, only evolved a little bit.
Everything that should have been a big blow -- the retirements of Nadine Angerer and Rachel Van Hollebeke, trading Alex Morgan, an injury to Kat Williamson -- Portland's managed to not just cope with, but come out better for.
Defensively, Portland's been one of league's best teams. Gone was the Riley-era tinkering, replaced by something closer to stability. With that came a league-best 19 goals against. And that's not just a league-best for this season, either. It's the fewest goals any team has allowed, ever. Before this year, no team had allowed fewer than 20.
The Thorns are also one of the league's highest-scoring teams. Portland's 35 goals are second only to the 40 that Western NY scored. Nadia Nadim was supposed to be Sky Blue's great scoring hope last year, but things never really got going for her there. Now, as a member of the Thorns, Nadim had the season she was supposed to have in New Jersey a year ago, leading the team in scoring with nine goals. Two more new additions, Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Lindsey Horan, scored five each. And Christine Sinclair, despite playing just 11 games due to the Olympics, scored six.
And all that isn't even the biggest story of the Thorns offense. In addition to scoring one goal, Tobin Heath registered a league-best 10 assists this season.
Heath, perhaps more than anyone, has reaped the benefits of the new Parsons regime. One of the most creative players the league's got, Heath had struggled under Riley, a victim of all that square-peg-round-hole stifling. But with Parsons, Heath has been allowed to just play. It's reminiscent of what Parsons did with Crystal Dunn in Washington last year, allowing her to take that World Cup roster snub and turn it into something good, a freedom to just play that led the Spirit to the postseason and Dunn to both the Golden Boot and MVP honors. Heath's season has gone in a similar direction -- she's definitely in the MVP conversation, and the Thorns are favorites heading into the postseason.
Through the first few games of the season, Heath was in some way responsible for every one of the Thorns' goals, and she, Horan, Sinclair and Nadim have spent the season shaping Portland's offense into one of the most dangerous we've seen the league's short history.
Portland will meet Riley again when they take on Western NY in the semifinals on Sunday. In Rochester, Riley's found a team that he could mold to be his own in a way that was never going to happen with the Thorns. For Portland, though, this season has been one about not just turning things around from the Riley-era, but also moving toward becoming as good a team on the field as they've long been on paper. And under Parsons, they've done exactly that, and more.
Orlando Pride 1 - 2 FC Kansas City
Boston Breakers 0 - 4 Western NY Flash
Chicago Red Stars 3 - 1 Washington Spirit