NWSL Championship - Portland Thorns FC v Western New York Flash

Portland Thorns FC win NWSL title: Moments to remember from league’s first championship game


At the onset of the NWSL season, the Portland Thorns were widely picked to take home the new women’s league’s first title. Somewhere along the way, that favorite’s status waned, with the team finishing the season in third place despite talents like Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and Tobin Heath.

But on Saturday in Rochester, that talent — along with inspired play from the team’s defense — won out. Heath’s first half bomb from 30-plus yards gave Portland a lead at regular season champion Western New York. In second half stoppage time, their team playing with 10, Portland saw Sinclair ice the club’s improbable title run, a 2-0 win rendering a season of promise and frustration a distant memory.

Portland stayed near the league lead most of the season, but by mid-August, their hopes of winning the regular season title had faded. Ultimately, they’d have to claim their crown on the road, with matches at FC Kansas City and Western New York — thought to be the league’s two best teams — seemingly setting the team up for a disappointing finish.

But forgetting regular season disappointment to find the type of unity that’s eluded them all season, Portland proved the best team over the two weeks that mattered. They overcame injuries (to Heath and Morgan), two excellent teams, and ultimately, doubt. As a result, the team most picked to claim the first NWSL title fulfilled their destiny, shutting out the regular season champions to do so.

Here are the moments to remember from today’s 2-0 result at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, NY:

source: Getty Images1. Goalkeepers come up big, early

Karina LeBlanc (right) and Adrianna Franch were tested high all day, the first major chance coming in the 12th minute. When Abby Wambach went left and lobbed a ball far post, right wing Samantha Kerr had her way with Nikki Marshall, out-jumping the Portland left back to head what could have been a goal. But LeBlanc reacted quickly, pushed the shot onto the bar, and managed to grab a rebound that nearly went in off her back in. The Portland keeper kept it 0-0.

Ten minutes later, it was Franch’s turn. Portland right back Marian Dougherty was given all the room she wanted to fire a cross in from the right. Sinclair, streaking across the face of Western New York’s central defense, redirected a ball toward the top of Franch’s goal. But the rookie for Oklahoma State, called on to make a pure reflex save, pushed it over, matching LeBlanc save-for-save early on.

2. Abby Wambach gets Kathryn Williamson sent off

Pity the rookie her opponent — the first year defender from Florida matching-up up against a former Gator who just happens to be the world’s best player — but Kathryn Williamson knew what she was getting into. In two games against Abby Wambach in the regular season, the Thorns central defender had held her own. On Saturday, Wambach targeted her in the second half, eventually drawing two yellow cards.

The first came in the 49th minute, when Williamson was lucky to avoid a straight red after a ball over the top looked set to send Wambach in on goal. Four minutes later, Williamson deservds a second yellow for a nasty challenge on hte Flash number nine, but the official had pity. In the 56th minute, however, that pity ran out, with Portland defender taking down Wambach at the edge of the area, drawing a second yellow card.

Portland would play the final 34 minutes with 10, eventually bringing on former U.S. international Tina Ellertson to partner Rachel Buehler in central defense. Remarkably, the teams was still able to keep the league’s best attack off the board, maintaining their clean sheer despite Wambach getting Williamson sent off.

source: Getty Images3. Carli Lloyd shoots. Again. And again.

Counting her double in the semifinals, Carli Lloyd scored 10 goals this season, one of four players to reach double-digits this year. In Saturday’s first half, she had numerous opportunities to add her 11th, including a 25th minute chance set up by Adriana Martin that saw her push her shot wide right despite being one-on-one with LeBlanc.

As the game went on, Lloyd seemed to single-mindedly look for that 11th goal. A try from the edge of the area set up by Wambach. Dead balls from distance around the Portland area. Predatory runs into the box. Lloyd was an attacking midfielder with a sniper’s mentality, racking up eight shots by the final whistle.

Every time she let loose, there was a chance she would equalize. It was worth a gasp. She has that kind of talent. And as her Olympics performances have shown, Lloyd also has that kind of timing.

Tonight, however, it never happened. Ultimately, Lloyd’s most important goal of the season was the one that never came.

source: Getty Images4. Tobin Heath wins the title for the Thorns

Watch her in warm ups and you’ll see the power in Heath’s shot. Released quickly with a slightly more topspin than a normal player’s, Heath can be a special kind of trouble when given too much room within 24 yards.

In the 40th minute, she was far beyond 24 yards. After a Western New York foul just inside Portland’s attacking third, Heath was closer to 32 yards from Franch’s goal, but with one of the most spectacular strikes of her career, Heath paved Portland’s title path.

Opting for power over precision, Heath straight-on approach launched the ball above the Flash wall with that typical top spin, her heavy strike dipping below Franch’s cross bar as the rookie goalkeeper leapt under the ball. Having set herself up to defend the left side of goal, Franch had no chance, eventually clattering against the opposite post as Heath’s shot bend the net and recoiled out. The most important goal of the season was also the best.

Heath was scoreless in seven regular season games after joining the Thorns from mid-season Paris Saint-Germain. In two playoff games, she scored twice, each time overcoming an injured right foot to help push Portland to their title.

5. Christine Sinclair seals it

As full time approached, there was something about Portland that made you believe they were going to close this out. Despite being down a player; despite the presence of Wambach and Lloyd; despite being on the road; and despite the occasional lapses of their defense this season, it was hard to imagine the Flash finding and equalizer. In the last game of a tumultuous season, Portland had finally looked the part. They finally looked like a team that would pull away from the pack.

One minute into stoppage time they sealed it. Sinclair — a Portland resident and a University of Portland alum — was put in alone on goal after a long throw in deep in Western New York’s half. The huge gap between right back Katherine Reynolds and the next defender was a complete breakdown by a team pressing for the equalizer, one that left Franch with no chance to stop Sinclair as the former Flash forward pulled up from 15 yards.

With the shot headed far post, Western New York’s only hope was for “Sinc’s” shot to catch the post. No chance. The insurance goal nestled against the left side netting as the 30-year-old Canadian ran for the sideboards, celebrating in front of fans silenced by her title-clinching goal.

It was her ninth of the season, and certainly her most memorable. Seeing her team come together after an inconsistent, often frustrating season, Sinclair had captained her hometown club to the NWSL’s first title, the Thorns’ 2-0 win Saturday in Rochester allowing the preseason favorites to finish an improbable if expected championship run.

England’s Mark Sampson on growth of women’s soccer, NWSL

Mark Sampson
Leave a comment

Head coach of England women’s national team Mark Sampson is a man who has had his life transformed over the past six months.

[ MORE: English women inspire a nation ]

Since England finished third at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada — the Three Lionesses had failed to win a single knockout game before their exploits in Canada — Sampson and his team have been at the fore of the women’s game getting increased exposure and attendances in England.

[ MORE: Klopp dazzles on Liverpool unveiling ]

With that in mind, ProSoccerTalk caught up with Sampson to discuss his appearance at the Balanced Business Forum (BBF) in London next week, which promotes gender balance in the business world, plus we also spoke to him about what the reaction has been like in England since returning from the World Cup and his plans for his own team, and his own coaching pathway, for the future.

Q: Mark, what is it about the BBF which made you so interested in speaking and getting involved?

A: I have  been fortunate enough to work in women’s football for a number of years now and at a number of levels as well and be around some elite people on and off the field, whether that be on the pitch or away from the pitch in the boardroom. I am very passionate about women’s sport and women in business. It is a great opportunity to share my experiences, particularly over the course of the summer, where I worked with a group of women who were successful and achieved something very special. It is a unique opportunity to share those experiences.

You have seen up close the positive impact of women playing soccer at the elite level. How important is it to develop those qualities in young women?

Certainly within women’s football we have seen a huge leap in recent years in not only the quality of play on the field but the change in the dynamic in the game as a whole. We are seeing more people watching domestic football, more people supporting the international team, we are seeing more clubs move towards a more professional model, which is creating positions not only for women on the field but off the field. I think women’s football at the moment is seen as a leading light not only in women’s sport but promoting in high positions.

How does all of this slot into your long-term and short-term goals with the English national team?

From our point of view we are obviously keen to promote the team and the game. We still have a lot of work to do at growing the game, whether that be at grassroots level, domestic level or international level. We are not where we want to be at yet. We want to make sure we continue to grow and these kind of opportunities are great for us to share our experiences, share our journeys and make sure that we are continually promoting good practice in women’s sport. The FA are certainly very strong around supporting women’s coaches, grassroots development, women in the boardroom and these are great opportunities to share those experiences and push that message even further.

After being involved at Swansea City and other clubs in the men’s game, what it the biggest differences you’ve seen between men’s and women’s soccer over the years?

The most important thing to mention, always, is that football is football. The great thing is that the women’s game now is getting the respect from people outside of it that maybe it didn’t have in previous years. Certainly there is a long way to go to move it closer to the men’s game but there is far more acceptance now from the men’s game. As a sport and it has got its own identity and people support it. The likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, they are football clubs who have really got behind and jumped on the bandwagon of women’s football and have started to develop really strong models at club level, hence we are seeing better players, better programs and more bums on seats at grounds. That is probably the way for us to go, moving forward, to really connect with the men’s game and ensure women’s football is visible within their clubs.

Since the World Cup, the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) in England has seen attendances rising, is that a big plus for you?

Absolutely. We are really working hard at ground level to push attendances and grow the game and to see it transpire at club matches and international matches is just a pat on the back really, for all the hard work that is going on. There has been hard work going on for many years, many years before I started working in the women’s football and here people haven’t got the rewards they deserve for the work that has been put in but now the rewards are there for everybody to see and the challenge is to continue to grow these partnerships and move the game forward. I still think we have a long way to go but this is a huge opportunity to keeping growing this game.

Can you sum up the reaction and incredible interest levels in the England women’s national team? What has that been like since you returned home after the successful summer?

The best way to describe it is, it is a different world. Jumping straight back off the plane we’ve had far more media interest, many more spectators at grounds, the girls are getting recognized in the street and people are genuinely supporting the team and excited about where this team is going. It has been great because people have been grafting away behind-the-scenes for years with the training, matches and hard work, and now to get to the point where they are being recognized for that, it is a real special time. It has given me even more motivation to keep that going and push it even further.


What is the next step for this team? You have a friendly tournament in China next month and then EURO 2017 which you are qualifying for right now. Surely you will be one of the favorites to win EURO 2017? 

As a nation like England whether that be in men’s or women’s football, you are always going to be one of the favorites for a major championship. That pressure is always going to be there. This team has been great at managing that pressure and seeing it as an opportunity and pushing it. There is a big challenge for us. We have got to always think about the big picture on this one. If we want to be winning these major championships, the World Cups and European Championships, then we have to consistently perform. To do that we need to play the best teams on a regular basis and win matches. A lot of time in international football people think you can turn up at a major tournament and turn it on for two months and go home with a trophy, but the reality of it is you need to be the best team, consistently, going into those tournaments and that has got to be our challenge in the next two to four years. Make sure we are winning football matches, growing our program and growing the game so that when we turn up at major championships, people look at England as a genuine contender.

Looking over at the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the USA, what do you make of the progress they have made?

Since it has come back into the fore, it has been really important. The U.S. are a leading nation of the women’s game and when the previous pro league fell by the wayside I always felt it was important for the women’s game as a whole that America were delivering a professional league. It is great to see the crowds and the quality of the football in America, in terms of how that relates to us, we are different. The culture in England is very different to America and we have got to work out how we are going to be competitive and sometimes the best way to find a competitive edge is to find something new and do something different. We are certainly going to look at what is going on in America, learn lessons of the good and the bad and make sure we find something that works well for our team and our country about growing the game. We have certainly got to give huge credit to the States and not only the work the national team and Jill is doing but domestically. The way they’ve grown the game and their fanbase, every nation is saying that we need to find a way of doing something like this.

You are obviously focused on your job with England right now, but I wanted to ask you about your own future. There are British coaches over in the NWSL, some of your players are over there too. If an opportunity arose in the NWSL or the U.S. in the future, would you consider it? 

Every coach is always going to say they are fully focused on their current job and I am certainly no different to that. In the future there will be some new challenges and I would never say no to anything, and certainly the way the women’s game is growing, and not just for me but every coach, there are going to be more opportunities to go and work at professional football clubs with some great players and some big clubs with big crowds. For any coach that has always got to be the motivation. Can you work at the highest possible level and test yourself?

Finally, in your home country of Wales right now there is euphoria around Gareth Bale and Wales on the brink of sealing qualification to the EURO 2016 championships. How big of a moment is this for soccer in Wales?

Saturday is a huge sporting day for the entire nation in general. We have a huge game against Australia in the Rugby World Cup, followed by an even bigger game for the Welsh national team away at Bosnia in our European Championship campaign. Certainly, Welsh sport at the moment is on a real high and it would be great to see the national team qualify for a major championship. I worked with Gareth Bale as a young kid and he is doing amazing things for himself and for the game in Wales. The staff behind-the-scenes there have worked so hard for so many years to really push the game and develop that team and everyone is really confident now that they will get their reward. It would be awesome for the country to be at a major championship.

Slew of international injuries leaves European clubs scrambling

<> on October 9, 2015 in Logrono, Spain.
Getty Images
Leave a comment

As Euro 2016 qualification is nearing an end, many international teams are pushing to secure a trip to France next summer. Sometimes that comes at a cost that most clubs are forced to bear.

Manchester City saw injuries to superstar attackers Sergio Aguero and David Silva, their leading goalscorer and leading chance creator, during European play yesterday. Even the deepest squad in England – which Manchester City seems to be – will struggle to replace their contributions.

They can at least rest a little more comfortably knowing they’re not the only ones.

Even just across the way, their arch rivals are dealing with an injury of their own. German midfielder and summer signing Bastian Schweinsteiger picked up a thigh injury during the warm-up before Germany’s 1-0 loss to Ireland on Thursday and could miss their match against Everton next weekend.

Defending Premier League champions Chelsea, who have sputtered to start the season, have lost both Nemanja Matic and Branislav Ivanovic for the immediate future to similar injuries. The two are important yet out of form players who individually could use some time off, but the squad will still suffer. The pair of Serbians were injured in their country’s 2-0 win over Albania, with both suffering hamstring injuries just eight minutes apart. Chelsea host Aston Villa next weekend with the Blues already bumbling in 16th place.

Other leagues have seen top players go down as well.

Paris Saint-Germain defender David Luiz felt his knee give way in Brazil’s 2-0 loss to Chile, and was immediately replaced by Marquinhos. He’s likely out for his country’s subsequent match against Venezuela, and could miss time at PSG. With the club already down starting goalkeeper Kevin Trapp, who pulled a leg muscle in club training Thursday, Luiz will now likely lean on young Marquinhos to cover for him at both the club and country level.

Bayern Munich has lost talented but oft-injured attacker Mario Gotze in the German loss to Ireland for significant time. Gotze tore a groin muscle while reaching for a ball on the touchline and will miss up to three months of play. The Bayern frontman, who has been productive in Champions League play thus far, missed much of last season with ankle trouble.

In Italy, Juventus will be forced to replace Alvaro Morata after the Spaniard’s injury was the only negative part of a 4-0 win over Luxembourg that sealed Euro 2016 qualification. There were fears that he suffered a broken bone in his leg, but instead AS reports he suffered a “traumatic injury” to the calf muscle and will still miss significant time. Juventus, often good with reporting injuries in detail, have not yet released a diagnosis. Morata started the season slowly for Juventus, but was just picking up the pace, owning a goal in each of their Champions League matches thus far and bagging a goal and two assists in a 3-1 league win over Bologna last weekend.

France saw a pair of injuries as Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema went down with a hamstring injury in their 4-0 friendly win over Albania on Thursday and will likely miss time for the La Liga giants as they get ready to face PSG in Champions League play in 11 days. Juventus could be without Paul Pogba next weekend after he sprained his ankle in the match, but the Juventus medical report says he will miss just seven days, leaving him questionable for the visit to Inter.

All this, and there are still more games to be played today, with injuries already striking before any of the matches have kicked off. Ajax, topping the table in the Eredivisie through eight games, will be sweating the fitness of goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen after the 26-year-old was injured in warmups before the Netherlands took on Kazakhstan, with Newcastle’s Tim Krul replacing him in the starting lineup.