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  • Writer's pictureEmma Treptow

And Then There Were Two: The Road to the NWSL Final

It’s been a long season of NWSL chaos but we are down to the final two. With the final kicking off in under 24 hours, let’s look back at what got these two teams in this position.

#2 Portland Thorns:

After a devasting semifinal loss to a depleted Chicago Red Stars last season, the Thorns are back in the final, again. The Thorns finished the NWSL season in second place, after drawing to last place Gotham FC on the final day of games. The team scored a league-high 49 goals throughout 22 games while conceding only 24 goals. So with a high-production offense and a defense on lock, the Thorns are no easy team to beat. That’s seen in their results, winning ten games, drawing nine, and losing only three total games.

The Portland Thorns celebrate after their semifinal win on October 23, 2022. Photo courtesy of @ThornsFC /twitter

Portland entered this season with a new head coach in Rhian Wilkinson after Mark Parsons left the Thorns for the head coaching job of the Netherlands Women’s National Team. Wilkinson had never coached in the NWSL before and is the first woman head coach for the organization since Cindy Parlow Cone in 2013. Portland added many exceptional players to their squad for this season with the likes of Sam Coffey from Penn State, Hina Sugita from INAC Kobe Leonessa, and Janine Beckie from Manchester City at the beginning of the season. They gained Tegan McGrady after a trade with the San Diego Wave midseason and Crystal Dunn back from maternity leave towards the end of the regular season. With new and exciting talent alongside long-time members of the team, the Thorns have a star-studded team. The mix of veteran and young talent helps this team as well, giving depth and experience to both the starting eleven and the bench. With Sophia Smith on fire this season, Christine Sinclair saw her playing time decrease but when in-game, she still showed up in the biggest ways.

The Thorns’ Challenge Cup was by no means perfect but it was a preseason tournament so what can you truly expect? They missed the playoffs on goal differential after finishing behind the top-placed OL Reign in their group. The Thorns won twice against eventual NWSL semifinalist’s San Diego Wave and beat Angel City 3-0 in the first match-up between the teams. They struggled to get results against the Reign in the Challenge Cup, ultimately keeping them from the playoffs.

Portland’s regular season got off with a bang, as they started with their now-Final opponent, beating Kansas City 3-0. After struggling throughout the month of May (they did not win a game at all in May), they rebounded in a big way, scoring 15 goals in their next four games. Not only that, they kept a shutout in three of those games. Sophia Smith contributed to seven of these 15 goals, scoring five and assisting two. Portland’s largest win of the season came during this block of games as they played the Orlando Pride at home, winning 6-0; and then just a month later, the Thorns put up five goals against Gotham FC on July 16. The most impressive feat of this game was that all five goals were scored by different players. Even with all the depth, Smith was the Thorns’ heart and soul this season.

The youngest MVP ever in the NWSL, she finished as the runner-up of the Golden Boot with 14 goals and three assists, but she did more than score. Her set-up play allowed her teammates to get on the scoresheet countless times. The Thorns looked posed to win the shield after back-to-back wins and last place Gotham FC as their final game, but Gotham had other plans. Portland finished the season in second, thanks to Gotham spoiling their shield dreams. But now that doesn’t matter as the Thorns play for their third Championship.

The Thorns, as the number two seed, had a first-round bye giving them a place in the semifinals where they would be the hosts. Portland knows how to show up for playoff matches so the atmosphere of the game was simply spectacular. Playing the San Diego Wave, the Thorns responded well to an early goal from Taylor Kornieck. Rocky Rodriguez scored a banger of an equalizer and the score remained 1-1 until the 90+3’. That’s when the magic happened. Crystal Dunn, subbed in at the 62-minute mark, scored off a corner kick to keep us from heading into extra time. The game finished 2-1 with Dunn as the hero. Having so recently returned from having her son, this was an amazing moment to witness. The Thorns have a good chance at another title tomorrow but they will need to hope to be on their top game and not drop off when it matters most.

#5 Kansas City Current

If you told anyone that Kansas City would be in the final this year after their season last year, they probably would’ve laughed in your face. But with multiple top offseason moves, the Current has gone from worst to fifth in less than 12 months. They finished the season with ten wins, six draws, and six losses. Finishing with the same point total as San Diego and Houston, Kansas City got pushed to fifth as they found 29 goals and allowed 29 as well. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch has helped keep a young backline out of the trenches while Lo’eau LaBonta has provided an offensive spark.

Kansas City Current smiles for a photo after semifinal win on October 23, 2022. Photo courtesy of @thekccurrent /twitter

The Current entered this season after finishing last in the league in 2021, winning only three games. Former head coach Huw Williams moved to a technical staff position within the club, giving Kansas City a chance to start the 2022 season fresh with a new head coach. They hired Matt Potter, former head coach of the United States U23 team. The Current had one of the best offseasons in the league, securing both Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis in trades with the North Carolina Courage. While both players were out for most of this season with injuries, when they are back, Kansas City will be even more of a force to be reckoned with. Kansas City added multiple new faces from drafts as well with the likes of Alex Loera of Santa Clara University, Elyse Bennett of Washington State University, and Izzy Rodriguez of Ohio State University. Throughout the 2022 season, Kansas City also added Cece Kizer and Addisyn Merrick from Racing Louisville and Claire Lavogez from Bordeaux. Even though the team might not have the biggest national team names, this team is filled with talent from top to bottom and the squad’s depth can not be looked over.

The Current’s 2022 Challenge Cup was quite the opposite compared to the Thorns as they came out and shocked us all, going 4-1-1 and qualifying for the playoffs. Despite losing 3-0 to Louisville, Kansas City found wins against Houston and Chicago during both matchups. Even though they fell to North Carolina in the Challenge Cup semifinals, there was this thought lingering “Is Kansas City the real deal?”

This shattered at the beginning of the regular season as the Current started with zero wins, one draw, and four losses in their first five games. Two of the games were decided by only one goal. This was understandable as the team was rotating trying to find a solid defense while also trying to figure out how to adjust to no longer having Sam Mewis. The end of May is when things started to click for Kansas City again as they went on a 13-game unbeaten run before it was ended by Chicago in mid-September. During this time, the Current beat North Carolina twice, outlasted the OL Reign and Washington Spirit in 1-0 wins, and earned three draws after falling behind. During this stretch, it became clear that yes maybe Kansas City is the real deal. The 4-0 loss to Chicago came at an unfortunate time for this Kansas City squad, with only three games remaining in the regular season and a playoff spot still on the line. After getting results after Portland and Washington, they were in for good. The team relied on LaBonta this season, scoring eight goals with six being penalty kicks. Kristen Hamilton and Kizer also shined offensively for the Current as well scoring seven a piece. Kansas City became the “celly” team toward the end of this season, wowing everybody with their individual and team celebrations, bringing a great sense of fun and lightheartedness to the games.

Kansas City hasn’t had an easy run to this final. As the five seed, they were sent on the road from the very beginning. They started in Houston, at a sold-out PNC Stadium. They started quickly, as Hamilton won a penalty in the opening five minutes that LaBonta slotted away with precision. Sophie Schmidt equalized for the Dash, sending us into the second half knotted 1-1. It was late-game heroics from Kate Del Fava that gave us the final. With her first-ever NWSL goal, Del Fava sent the Current into the semifinals, scoring in the 90+10’. Then Kansas City had the task of heading West to face the shield winners, the OL Reign. They, again, started fast with Alex Loera pouncing on a loose ball in the Reign’s box to put Kansas City up within five minutes. Hamilton sealed the deal in the 63’ with a brilliant goal off a great assist from Bennett. The Current will need to start fast again the Thorns and limit any defensive mistakes but with Franch in net, they shouldn’t have too much to worry about.

Will it be the Portland Thorns, a perennial power in the NWSL, or the newcomers of the Kansas City Current in a city with NWSL history? Tune in tomorrow at 8 PM EST on CBS to find out and watch the NWSL crown a champion.


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