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Match between Courage and Thorns draws record crowd

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A National Women’s Soccer League record 25,218 fans watched the Portland Thorns beat the North Carolina Courage 2-1 at Providence Park on Sunday.

The game featured numerous stars from the U.S. national team that won the Women’s World Cup this summer in France. Among them was Crystal Dunn, who scored in the fourth minute to put the Courage on top early. The Thorns evened it on a North Carolina own goal in the 56th minute and went ahead on another in the 82nd.

The game was a rematch of last season’s NWSL championship, which the Courage won 3-0

The NWSL is in its seventh season. The previous league record crowd was 23,403, set at a match between the Orlando Pride and Houston Dash in 2016.

The attendance record for a women’s club league match was 34,148, set at the inaugural game of the now-defunct WUSA between the Bay Area CyberRays and Washington Freedom at RFK Stadium.

NWSL game goes ahead with breaks; ‘oxygen tanks’ available

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Due to the widespread forest fires in Oregon a National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) game saw players take 15 minute breaks throughout due to concerns over the air quality in Portland on Wednesday.

Several days of hazy conditions in the Rose City had seen air quality deteriorate as the smoke from the nearby fires caused plenty of problems.

Despite the air quality not being deemed acceptable before the game took place in front of 17,986 fans at Providence Park, it went ahead anyway with the Portland Thorns beating Sky Blue FC 2-1.

The Thorns clinched a playoff spot with the victory, while Sky Blue have now gone 20 games without a win.

The scene inside of Providence Park was the following, as the hazy conditions were clear for all to see.

Thorns seek redemption after last year’s early exit

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When the season started, Portland Thorns captain Christine Sinclair said anything less than a championship would be a disappointment.

That’s because last season’s exit in the National Women’s Soccer League semifinals – at home – was a regret that needled the Thorns over the winter and into this season.

[ MORE: Previewing the USMNT crucial match against Panama ]

“Losing in the semifinals here was disappointing,” Sinclair said. “But it’s things like that that motivate you.”

Last season, Portland went 12-3-5 and finished with the league’s best record but fell 4-3 in the semifinals to the Western New York Flash. The Flash went on to win the NWSL championship before moving to North Carolina as the Courage in the offseason.

This year the Courage won the Supporters’ Shield after finishing the regular season atop the standings at 16-7-1. The Thorns (14-5-5) finished second in the 10-team league.

The Thorns will host the third-place Orlando Pride (11-6-7) on Saturday in the first playoff semifinal, while the Courage host the Chicago Red Stars (11-7-6) on Sunday in Cary. The winners will go on to meet on Oct. 14 at Orlando City Stadium for the final.

“We’re not letting what happened last year happen again,” said Portland’s Tobin Heath, who recently returned from injury to a loaded lineup that includes fellow U.S. national team regulars Allie Long, Meghan Klingenberg and Lindsey Horan.

The Thorns also opened the season against the Pride, with Sinclair scoring in a 2-0 victory. It was the first of a league record 10 wins at home for Portland.

But the Pride would go on to get a boost from the return of Alex Morgan, who started the season playing in France, and the chemistry she developed with Brazilian star Marta, a five-time FIFA World Player of the Year.

There was a bit of trash talking this week between Thorns coach Mark Parsons and Pride coach Tom Sermanni in advance of the semifinal.

Sermanni fired first, saying he thought referees were intimidated by the big crowds at Portland’s Providence Park and favored the Thorns. Parsons texted him back with a magnifying glass emoji and the words “I see you Tommy Boy.”

Portland, which won the inaugural league championship in 2013, has never lost to Orlando, going 3-0-1.

The Pride was hurt when it was revealed this week that Brazilian midfielder Camila is out with an ACL tear in her right knee.

The Courage won its first four games and stayed atop the table for almost the rest of the way, led by Lynn Williams – last season’s league MVP – with nine goals and five assists.

“No one has ever won the NWSL Shield and won the championship in the same season,” North Carolina coach Paul Riley said. “We’re 0-3 against Chicago, so we’re the underdog, which is great. I don’t mind the underdog tag.”

Chicago, paced by forward Christen Press with 11 goals, stumbled in August with three losses at home but went undefeated for its final four games. U.S. teammate Julie Ertz had four goals and three assists playing a defensive midfield position.

The NWSL is wrapping up its historic fifth season. No other professional women’s soccer league in the United States has lasted as long.

Sky Blue’s Sam Kerr, also a standout on the Australian national team, won the Golden Boot award with an NWSL-record 17 goals this season, including two hat tricks. Marta had 13 goals and six assists for the Pride.

This season was the first that the league has had a national broadcast deal. The Lifetime channel featured an NWSL game each Saturday as part of a deal struck with A+E Networks, which bought a stake in league and became a sponsor.

Lifetime will televise both semifinals.

WATCH: Goalkeeper Betos scores stoppage-time equalizer for 10-player Portland Thorns

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Goalkeeper Michelle Betos rescued the 10-woman Portland Thorns by scoring a goal off a corner kick in stoppage time to give her side a 1-1 draw with FC Kansas City on Friday in the first NWSL match after the World Cup break.

Betos became the first goalkeeper to score in National Women’s Soccer League history when she threw caution to the wind to give the Thorns an extra attacker on a corner kick in stoppage time. The first one was sent out by FC Kansas City. The second one—from Allie Long—found Betos unmarked and she drove a header off the midsection of Frances Silva and over the line. The goal marked the first time the Thorns have ever flipped the result of a match with a goal in the 90th minute or stoppage time.

Betos was mobbed by her teammates as she scrambled back to defend her goal for the final few moments of the match, and again next to her goal after the final whistle. The Thorns had played the final 20 minutes with 10 players after McCall Zerboni was shown a straight red for stepping on Kansas City forward Shea Groom.

The return match for NWSL was a battle between two of the clubs most impacted by World Cup call-ups. The result was an opening half in which both teams had moments of possession but neither proved particularly dangerous. By the break the match was scoreless and FC Kansas City had taken partial control of the midfield. Sarah Hagen hit the post in the 33rd minute and the Blues had another near miss as the halftime whistle drew near.

Five minutes into the second half, Groom got away in space and drew a foul from Kendall Johnson. Jen Buczkowski drove the long free kick to the middle of the box and Sarah Hagen beat Betos to it and headed into an empty goal to give Kansas City a 1-0 lead. Betos argued she was fouled but most of the contact came from teammate Rachel Van Hollebeke.

The match changed again in the 70th minute when Groom was on the ground after a foul and Zerboni stepped on Groom as she walked to the aid of Sinead Farrelly who was shaken up on the play. Zerboni received a straight red. Shortly after the match she took to Twitter to say she was simply trying to get to Farrelly and did not intentionally step on Groom.

The Thorns showed little ability to pester FC Kansas City after that until Betos came about 40 yards out to take a free kick. From there the Thorns won a corner kick and Betos wandered into the box. Left unmarked all the way she stepped into Long’s second attempt for an aggressive header that knotted the score and incited pandemonium at Providence Park.

Despite the late heroics, the Thorns (2-3-4, 10 points) extended their club-record winless streak to seven and remain ahead of only Sky Blue FC. FC Kansas City (3-4-2, 11 points) moved up to 5th place.

Healthy foot or not, Tobin Heath comes through for Thorns in NWSL Championship

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Tobin Heath didn’t train all week after having her right foot stomped on in last week’s semifinal.

Still, she insisted she’d be ready to play in Saturday’s National Women’s Soccer League Championship game.

And when game time came at Sahlen’s Stadium, she stepped right into the starting lineup for the Thorns. Forty minutes later she hit a knuckling free kick from 34 yards out for the game-winner in Portland Thorns FC’s 2-0 win over the Western New York Flash.

“I knew I’d have limited opportunities and as soon as I saw the free kick in that spot, I knew I wanted it. I was pretty confident when I stepped up,” Heath said.

Limited opportunity describes her season with the Thorns, to an extent. It didn’t start until July 14 after her return from French club Paris Saint-Germain, where she’ll return to immediately on Sunday.

Her presence helped calm and solidify a Thorns midfield that largely struggled through the first half of the season, even leading Alex Morgan to say in June that at times she “felt alone up top.”

But Heath was a catalyst in bringing together a disjointed Thorns side for the stretch-run of a season that varied greatly from the script many wrote for a flagship franchise expected to runaway with the title. Instead they finished third on a tiebreaker, going on the road to Kansas City and Rochester, N.Y. to win the title.

“When some type of adversity happens, our team comes together, even when more,” Heath said. “That’s just kind of been the end of our season, how it’s been. It’s given us hope and belief and I think you saw all that until the very end.”

Heath never revealed the diagnosis of her right foot injury, but said after Saturday’s game that the foot was “not even close to 80 percent.”

Saturday’s brutally physical – which saw five players carded, including Thorns defender Kathryn Williamson seeing two yellow cards in eight minutes for an ejection – wasn’t exactly conducive to Heath’s technical style. She may not have been the best Thorns player on the field, but one stellar moment was enough.

And her teammates had no doubt in her, either. Could anyone have imagined Heath’s hurt right foot hitting a free kick like that?

“I would have believed (it),” said Tina Ellertson – who joined the Thorns on roster freeze day on July 31. “She has an awesome right foot. She’s an amazing player.”

On Saturday, Heath’s free kick – along with Christine Sinclair’s stoppage time goal to ice the game – lifted Portland, who got contributions from lesser known names like Mana Shim and Danielle Foxhoven throughout earlier stretches of the season.

“Different people stepping up at different moments every time. I’m just so proud of them coming together as a team and playing with such an amount of heart,” Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone said.