The duality of the NWSL is showcased to the full as Thorns stun Wave in a cathartic playoff nail biter


Portland Thorns FC’s Crystal Dunn celebrates her goal after her team’s win over San Diego Wave FC in the NWSL Semifinals at Providence Park on October 23, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Amanda Loman/Getty Images)

Crystal Dunn was five months away from giving birth, and the Portland Thorns were three weeks away from reviving the scandal, and the National Women’s Soccer League was still grappling with years of abuse when just before 4 p.m. Sunday in Portland, the Der cathartic moment has come.

It dribbled to Dunn on the edge of the box in the 93rd minute of a playoff semi-final. Thousands of conflicting fans stood and held their breath. And Dunn shot a legendary winner past the San Diego Wave.

She sprinted away in ecstasy and Oregon exploded. And at the end of a year marked by unfathomable heaviness and heartache, there was joy in Portland and across the league.

Pure, unadulterated joy.

And there was a duality that defined the NWSL: it’s flawed, devastatingly flawed, and yet it keeps stopping and delighting.

The 2022 playoffs began in the shadow of the Yates Report, the US Soccer-commissioned investigation that exposed how the league, its owners and executives, and its power imbalances had “failed” players and subjected them to emotional, verbal and sexual abuse.

It left the players “horrified and heartbroken and frustrated and exhausted and really really angry,” according to Thorns captain Becky Sauerbrunn.

And we all wondered how, while carrying such an emotional burden, how could they put on the shirts of the clubs that had disappointed their peers and go play football.

But they did. Oh they did well. They drew unprecedented crowds and provided rousing entertainment.

In last weekend’s quarterfinals, Kansas City stunned a packed Houston stadium with a goal in 10 minutes of added time.

That same night, Alex Morgan sent San Diego into the semifinals in overtime, in front of 26,215 players, a new playoff attendance record.

And then, the following weekend, it was Portland’s turn.

The Thorns have been at the center of the scandal since allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct by former coach Paul Riley came to the fore last fall. The Yates report revealed and confirmed how owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson allowed Riley to coach in the league for six years despite being aware of the sexual harassment allegations against him.

Current players felt the scandal’s weight as it rocked the organization and lasted through 2021-2022, especially after it exploded again earlier this month.

“The last few weeks have been tough. The last two years have been very, very difficult for the majority of this group,” head coach Rhian Wilkinson said on Sunday. “It takes a toll on them. I know people talk about it, but I don’t think they fully understand what they had to put up with.”

The fans felt that too. They felt lied to and treated unfairly. Some have struggled to reconcile with the support of a club that had abused its power as an institution.

“It’s difficult for people to get into the stadium today. I understand that,” Rhian Wilkinson said on Sunday. “And some people couldn’t.”

But most came to a simple justification: they had to show up to support the players, the ones with whom they had formed an unbreakable bond since the day they all arrived at the club. That bond has made the Thorns a target for NWSL stars and the league’s most commercially successful franchise. For years, the Rose City Riveters and the entire red-clad fan department had made Providence Park the women’s soccer capital of the United States.

“Their showing up is exactly what we want,” Dunn said. “The game just isn’t as much fun without the fans.”

“And the players needed [them]’ Wilkinson pointed out. “They needed to see that they were loved.”

So the fans called for the eviction of the men implicated as enablers. They pressured sponsors to divert funds from the club directly to the players. And then they did what the players asked for: they showed up in large numbers. They came with signs aimed at Paulson, but also with their collective voice. And for more than 90 minutes they used it.

They rarely stood and sat and sang constantly. They were amazed when international stars and US teammates dueled. They groaned when San Diego took the lead but roared when Raquel “Rocky” Rodríguez threw a majestic volley into the top corner.

For more than 70 minutes afterwards, 22,000 of them cheered and sang through paralyzing nerves. The Thorns gradually took control of the second half and cemented their faith. But the breakthrough just didn’t want to come. Wave keeper Kailen Sheridan made save after save. Thorns striker Morgan Weaver got the chance of a lifetime but headed it over the bar.

Then Dunn appeared, 156 days after motherhood, a perfect portrayal of the gripping narratives the NWSL regularly churns out.

Ever since she gave birth to her son Marcel, there have been times when Dunn thought, “Maybe I’ll just take the rest of this year off.” But she’s taken her altered physique “to the absolute limit” and returned to the field in less than four months, and she’s done everything she can to be available precisely for games like this.

She met the winner and sparked an “emotional explosion for the whole stadium, the whole city,” as Rodriguez put it.

And she offered a reminder for all that she and her teammates keep reminding themselves: “That this game is fun. We like to play this game. We find so much joy in it.”

“There were things that sometimes make you feel like you can’t be your best version of yourself,” she admitted. But time and time again, the players of this flawed but powerful league find a way to be just that.

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