The National Women’s Soccer Association named Portland Thorns forward Sophia Smith the league’s Most Valuable Player last week. And on Saturday, the 22-year-old Smith scored a goal in the first four minutes of the championship game. The Thorns went on to win 2-0 against the Kansas City Current. The Portland team is the first to win three NWSL championships, and the game was the first to be broadcast in primetime on network TV. Anne Peterson is a sports writer for the Associated Press, covering the Thorns and Timbers and international soccer. She brings us the highlights of the historic win and the challenges of this season — with investigations into the culture of abuse in the franchise and the NWSL league itself.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with the Portland Thorns. On Saturday they beat the Kansas City Current to win a record third National Women’s Soccer League championship. The Thorns did it in front of a primetime broadcast TV audience. They won it all just weeks after a bombshell investigation was released. It found that abuse and sexual misconduct are systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches and victims. Anne Peterson is a Portland based sports writer for the Associated Press. She joins us now. Welcome to the show.
Anne Peterson: Thank you for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. Before we get to the Saturday championship game, we should just talk briefly about the semifinal, because it was an ecstatic moment for Thorns fans in Portland. Can you describe the game winning goal, and the scene at Providence Park?
Peterson: What made it compelling, Dave, how it happened. Crystal Dunn came in in stoppage time, right at the end of the game, and scored the game winning goal. And it was notable because Crystal Dunn had just had a baby in May, she had her son Marcel, and she has been working her way back to game fitness, and she has been coming into games off the bench, as a substitute. She came in and just scored this banger of a goal.
And you know the other thing about it is Crystal Dunn is also a member of the U.S. National team, and she’s pretty much universally beloved. She is one of the most versatile players on both the Thorns and the national team, and so it was just a really compelling moment, made for a great story.
Miller: That set up the Championship match in DC, between the Thorns and the Kansas City Current. What was the basic matchup like going into the game?
Peterson: It was kind of a game between two teams that are very different stylistically, and have very different backgrounds. The Portland Thorns have always been this powerhouse team that is very attacking minded, while the Kansas City Current was an expansion team last year. They finished last year at the bottom of the league, and then worked their way up this season to actually get a spot in the finals, which was an amazing turnaround for them. They also have a former Portland Thorns goalkeeper named Adrianna Franch who is probably one of the best goalkeepers in the league. And so it was kind of an offense versus defense game going into it.
Miller: Sophia Smith, who is only 22, was both the MVP of the league, recently announced, and the MVP of this game. Can you describe her goal at the four minute mark on Saturday, the very beginning of the game?
Peterson: Well the best part of Sophia Smith’s goal was the celebration afterwards, where she threw up her hands and shrugged, “was there any question about whether I was MVP?”
Miller: People should just google shrug or goal, you’ll find the picture. It’s a beautiful picture.
Peterson: Right, and it spawned about a million memes online. And she was already kind of known for memes around the internet, so it was very fitting that she had a celebration that went viral.
She’s a dynamic player. She’s both fast, and I guess the best way to describe it is that her age belies her talent at being able to read the field. She has this uncanny ability to see how plays are developing, and get into the right positions to score. So she was well deserving of the MVP, and the game MVP obviously, with that goal in the fourth minute.
Miller: Well how did that goal set the tone for the rest of the game on Saturday?
Peterson: Well I think that Kansas City was still pretty much in it. Obviously, that goal kind of capitalized on some defensive mistakes by the Kansas City Current. And then to start the second half, the Current gave up an own goal because of another defensive error. So defense being the Kansas City Current’s strength, I think that those two things really deflated the team, and the Thorns were gonna win it.
Miller: You mentioned what makes Sophia Smith special, and the league recognizes it, making her the most valuable player for the season. But soccer is obviously a team sport. What makes this team overall so special together?
Peterson: Well, it truly is a team. And I think that what happened is that the Yates Report came out earlier this month, and if you’re not familiar with the Yates Report, last year, in the National Women’s Soccer League, there were a series of scandals. And after a prominent scandal involving a former Portland Thorns coach, Paul Riley, came out in The Athletic regarding two former players who accused him of sexual harassment and coercion, Paul was immediately fired from his current team, the North Carolina Courage, and U.S. Soccer opened up an investigation. They brought in former acting Attorney General Sally Yates to conduct the investigation.
It was released early in October and, quite frankly, it was shocking on a lot of levels, and revealed a lot of things that we didn’t necessarily know were going on behind the scenes in the National Women’s Soccer League. But it did find that harassment and abuse, emotional abuse, and misconduct was really systemic in the league. Five coaches from the NWSL last year, and there were only 10 teams, were dismissed or stepped down because of misconduct last season. So there was definitely a problem.
The Thorns were involved in some of that controversy, and their handling of Paul Riley’s tenure in Portland, which was 2014 and 2015, was really not handled well to say the least. They knew of the allegations against Riley brought by two former players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, and those were not revealed publicly. Portland also claimed that they informed the league and they informed U.S. Soccer about the investigation into Paul Riley, but Riley obviously was able to get another job in the National Women’s Soccer League.
So that happened, and there was a lot of shock, and a lot of hurt, and a lot of people trying to process it. And so many of the players were personally impacted by this report. And this is just my opinion, but from the players that I’ve spoken to, that report really galvanized the locker room. They all came together as a team. They gave each other the space to heal, and they listened to each other, and it was really a moment of reckoning for the league. But at the same time, it was something that really brought the Thorns together. And I think that that’s what pushed them to the Championship. They’ve talked about it numerous times.
Miller: That’s from the player’s perspective. But I want to bring the fans into this, because as we’ve talked about before, a lot of die hard Thorns and Timbers fans have been really torn. They really want to support the players and the team made up of players, but they didn’t want to give money to the ownership, to Merritt Paulson, who at this point has stepped down as CEO, but had said nothing about selling the team. What did players say about what they wanted from fans?
Peterson: I think the most moving plea came from Bella Bixby, she’s the goalkeeper of the Thorns, and she posted on social media that she understood that there were some people who needed to stay away from the game for personal reasons, whether it was they didn’t want to give Merritt Paulson their money, or whether it was just too emotionally heavy for them to come to games. But she also said that the players need the fans, and needed the fans more than ever in that moment, and especially there for the semifinal. She said that the fans being there and supporting them show the team that they care. It was really heartfelt, and I think it moved the needle for a lot of fans who were on the fence about going.
Miller: As I noted in my intro, this championship game on Saturday aired on broadcast television, on CBS at primetime, 8 pm Eastern. How significant is that?
Peterson: It’s huge. It is huge for this league. The league has really fought for recognition, and to have that kind of platform was just massive. It shows you the growth of women’s soccer overall. During the game, they announced at halftime that Allied Bank, who was their sponsor, has signed on for another five years. They are also looking at expanding the league to 14 teams in 2024.
I did a story on Friday looking at the growth of women’s soccer internationally, based on a report that was produced by FIFA that surveyed women’s leagues and women’s clubs all across the globe. And it found that 77% of women’s leagues now have a title sponsor, and that’s a massive jump from previous years. So women’s soccer is really catching hold as a sport. I think we saw the start of it in 2015, when the U.S. won the women’s World Cup in Canada. It was, at that point, one of the highest watched women’s events ever on television. Actually, I think it was the most watched women’s event on television. And that momentum grew in 2019, with the World Cup in France, which was so compelling. And we expect to see another World Cup bump again next year, when the Women’s World Cup is in Australia and New Zealand.
Miller: Anne Peterson, thanks for joining us today.
Peterson: Thank you, Dave.
Miller: Anne Peterson is a Portland-based sport’s writer for the Associated Press.
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