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The Thorns overcome off-field challenges to win National Women's Soccer League title

The Portland Thorns pose with the trophy after the team won the National Women's Soccer League championship match against the Kansas City Current on Saturday in Washington, D.C. Portland won 2-0.
Nick Wass
/
AP
The Portland Thorns pose with the trophy after the team won the National Women's Soccer League championship match against the Kansas City Current on Saturday in Washington, D.C. Portland won 2-0.

WASHINGTON — Sophia Smith and the Portland Thorns overcame challenges off the field this season with a championship on it.

Smith, the season's Most Valuable Player, scored early and the Thorns won their third National Women's Soccer League title Saturday night with a 2-0 victory over the Kansas City Current.

The Thorns also won NWSL championships in 2013, the league's inaugural season, and again in 2017. The three titles are the most for any team in the league.

A recent report that revealed misconduct across the league impacted the Thorns directly, but the players said it brought them together.

"We've put in so much work this whole season. We've gone through a lot of stuff that isn't in the job description," Smith said. "So it just felt really rewarding. I felt so proud of our team because we've just gone through so much — and to be able to bring this back to our fans who have stuck with us through everything this year, it means so much to us."

The Current had a costly turnover before Smith went down the field, maneuvered around goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and deftly scored in the fourth minute.

Smith nearly had another goal in the 27th minute, but her shot went just wide. Smith is the second MVP recipient to score in the championship game, joining Lynn Williams for North Carolina in 2016. At 22, she's also the youngest player to score in a league final.

Smith was honored as MVP earlier this week after scoring a club-record 14 goals during the regular season. She was also chosen the championship game MVP.

An own goal off Kansas City's Addisyn Merrick doubled Portland's lead in the 56th minute. Moments later, Morgan Weaver had a shot from distance but Franch got a hand on it before it hit the crossbar and caromed away.

"This one hurts," Current coach Matt Potter said. "It's just a moment, to put it into the bigger picture. Then obviously, we have a lot of reasons to celebrate right now and this year that we can all look back on, maybe tomorrow or the next day, and be very proud of it. I think we've talked all along that our best days are ahead of us, not behind us."

Audi Field was nearly sold out for the game, which was broadcast in primetime on CBS network television for the first time.

The NWSL was rocked this month by an investigation that showed systemic abuse and misconduct, spanning multiple teams, coaches and victims.

The investigation led by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates was launched last year after two former players came forward with allegations of harassment and sexual coercion dating back a decade against former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley.

Riley, who was fired, denied the allegations. He was one of five coaches in the league who were dismissed or stepped down last year amid claims of misconduct.

The Yates report detailed how the Thorns mishandled complaints about Riley when he coached the team in 2014-15. In the wake of the report, the Thorns fired two team executives. But some fans have called on owner Merritt Paulson to sell both the Thorns and the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer.

Some fans at Audi Field held a sign that read: "Support The Players."

"We are a very close team off the field and we knew that these things would potentially derail us, so a lot of conversations were to stay process-based," Portland goalkeeper Bella Bixby said. "We know that some days are going to be hard for some people, so when we can just come together and bear that burden with them, we're able to balance it out."

The Thorns advanced to the championship game with a 2-1 victory over the San Diego Wave last Sunday. Crystal Dunn scored in stoppage time for the win.

The Current earned their berth with a 2-0 victory over the top-seeded OL Reign, surprising the winners of this season's Supporters Shield.

The Current began play in 2021 as an expansion team, with many of its players coming over from the defunct Utah Royals. Last season they finished in last place in the league.

The Washington Spirit won last year's NWSL championship.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press