Anyone in the vicinity of Providence Park on Sunday, just before 4 p.m., heard an absolute explosion of noise from the crowd of more than 22,000 in the stadium. The reason: Crystal Dunn, playing in only her fourth game back with the Thorns since giving birth in May, had launched a rocket into the back of the net, putting the Thorns ahead of the San Diego Wave 2–1 in the semifinal to launch Portland to its fifth league championship game and cement her status of being not a regular mom but a cool mom.*
Dunn, who was training with the team into her ninth month of pregnancy, spoke after the game about the support she'd received from her teammates. “As elite athletes, we’re always used to pushing our bodies, exerting it to the absolute limit. I think for me, doing what I was able to do—give birth, come back—these are stories that I believe that many women can do, and I think we just need to encourage more of us to be able to walk this journey,” Dunn said, adding that her experience is not necessarily what will work for all athletes in her position. “It’s not easy, but stepping off the field and being able to hold my child is exactly why I did all this.”
After the game, first-year coach Rhian Wilkinson credited her predecessor, Mark Parsons, and the culture he and the team had created, especially when it comes to each player accepting whether they’re starting or on the bench. While the Thorns’ stacked roster creates a challenge for the coach, it’s more of a challenge for other teams: “There’s lots of ways to score,” Wilkinson said. “If it’s not Soph it’s Hina, if it’s not Hina, it’s Morgan, and if it’s not Morgan it’s Rocky, and if it’s not Rocky, now it’s Crystal Dunn. Trying to stop our many, many weapons is a tough task.”
The Wave led first thanks to a header from Taylor Kornieck in the eighth minute. But 12 minutes later, another ball off Kornieck’s head landed at the feet of Rocky Rodríguez, who launched a blast into the top corner of the net to tie the game. The Wave is the first NWSL expansion team to make it to a semifinal in its first season.
Many in the stands wore red T-shirts with the message “You Knew" or “Support the Players” on them, references to the turmoil in the Thorns’ front office and the league in general that began just over a year ago (around the time Dunn stepped back from playing due to her pregnancy). Allegations by former Thorns players against the 2014–15 coach were detailed in the Athletic in September 2021, and a report released earlier this month has led to the dismissal of two executives in the Thorns and Timbers organization and calls for majority owner Merritt Paulson, who has stepped down as CEO, to sell the teams.
In the postgame press conference and on social media, players pointed to the game, the goals, the win, and the crowd as being sources of joy in a tough time. “It’s been a long, hard year for not just our club, but for the whole entire NWSL,” Dunn said "For us, every game we step into, we remind each other that this game is fun, we enjoy playing this game, we find so much joy in it.”
YALL SHOWED UP FOR US! WE LOVE YOU ROSE CITY❤️❤️❤️ thank you https://t.co/JvWN4zvfVl— kel (@kellihubly) October 24, 2022
Appearing in their fifth championship game in the 10 years of the NWSL's existence, the Thorns will face the Kansas City Current in Saturday’s final at Audi Field in Washington, DC, airing on CBS at 5 p.m. Pacific time. The Thorns beat the Current at their first meeting this season, in April, but their second game ended in a 1–1 draw. Portland won the championship in 2013 and 2017. (The NWSL follows the NFL system of holding its championship at a predetermined location, as opposed to holding it at the home field of the team with the best record. The stars aligned to give them one home final, a loss to North Carolina in 2018.)
The Current’s roster includes several former Thorns: defender Elizabeth Ball, forward Mallory Weber (who’s been out with an injury), and Adrianna Franch, who won the championship with the Thorns in 2017 and was named NWSL goalkeeper of the year in both 2017 and 2018—she’s a finalist for the same title this season, too. The Kansas native, US Women’s National Team player, and Portland fan favorite was traded to the Current in August 2021.
*This status was already cemented, but who can resist a Mean Girls reference?