by John Stupak
The Portland Thorns finally delivered on what they have been wanting to achieve since the NWSL’s inaugural season in 2013. Even on that year, when the Thorns won the championship, it never happened. But, it is finally going to happen in 2016; the Thorns are going to host a playoff game at Providence Park.
After two straight, dominating performances by the Thorns, the Western New York Flash came into Portland on Sunday night and presented the toughest challenge to the Thorns since back-to-back Seattle Reign matches over a month ago. In front of a nationally televised, sold-out Providence Park crowd, the Thorns won a game that looked like it might be another easy three points but turned in a matter of minutes into a nail biter to the final whistle.
The Flash looked entirely game to try and spoil the night’s jovial mood from the outset, giving the Thorns fits early and often by getting some quality looks at the goal and dominating offensively. The Flash, sitting fourth in the standings and just two points ahead of the fifth place Reign, came out like their playoff lives depended on it. That, along with some defensive giveaways by the Thorns, had the home crowd on edge with Michelle Betos and the Portland defenders being the busiest Thorns during the first 25 minutes of the match.
The home team finally caught a break in the 27th minute when Nada Nadim earned a penalty kick when the Flash’s Jaelene Hinkle earned a yellow card for knocking Nadim down on a breakaway near the goal. Nadim capitalized on the opportunity, giving the Thorns the first lead of the night.
Christine Sinclair, who has been on a tear since coming back from the Olympics, scored in the 37th minute to give the Thorns a 2-0 advantage at halftime and things were looking especially rosy in Portland on a beautiful, clear evening.
For much of the second half, The Thorns defense remained air tight while Dagny Brynjarsdottir joined the scoring party for the Thorns in the 69th minute, giving Portland a 3-0 lead. However, things were about to get a lot more interesting soon after.
The Flash brought the crowd back to the edge of their seats when they scored two quick goals late. The ball finally got past Betos in the 77th minute when Jess McDonald knocked in a header to give Western New York some life. Then, just three minutes later, Lynn Williams found herself open on a breakaway, nicely finishing a perfectly placed kick that cut the lead to 3-2.
The Thorns, having found themselves in a competitive match again, had to sweat out the remaining ten minutes plus stoppage time. The Flash had one last chance in the final few seconds to draw even on a corner kick, but Betos snared the ball in mid-air to secure three points for the Thorns and home field advantage for the semifinals of the playoffs. For the fans in attendance who were loud, chanting and standing all night long, maybe no more so than those final few minutes, the Thorns gave back with a gift of victory.
Sunday night’s game also set new NWSL records for total and average home attendance in a season. The sell-out crowd boosted Portland’s total attendance to 169,449 for the season, breaking the old Thorns record of 160,341 in 2014. It boosted the average attendance to 16,945, beating the old record of 15,639, also set by the Thorns in 2015.
There is one more regular season game remaining for the Thorns, a road game against Sky Blue FC on September 25. There is also still the possibility for the Thorns to take over first place in the NWSL standings, if they can get some help from the Washington Spirit to miss out on a few points. But, Thorns fans can finally rejoice and begin to get ready for the match they have all been waiting for, a home playoff game at Providence Park. After four record breaking seasons, the players and the fans have earned it.