Route Two Soccer: 3 Winners and 2 Losers from the NWSL Final

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Winner: Portland, for getting the job done

The Thorns showed up with a chip on their shoulder, ready to complete the ‘unfinished business’ of last season. It’s strange to say for a team that has now won either the league title or the shield in three out of the league’s five seasons, but Portland has felt like an underachiever. With the talent at their disposal, not to mention the infrastructure and institutional support, anything less than a title this year would have felt like a disappointment. Beyond that, it’s important to remember that Portland started this season poorly, and still looked to be struggling well into the summer. There was talk about ‘too many stars, not enough teamwork’ and questions about whether they would ever actually put it all together.

Well, they put it together. Following a loss on July 1, Portland went on a run in which they won 11 of 13 games, including the semifinal and final. They integrated their stars as they returned from the Euros and injury, settled into a flexible tactical system, and started to look as good as they always expected to be.

In a league without all that much tactical innovation, coach Mark Parsons’ back three was a breath of fresh air, and helped to revitalize their attack without doing anything to weaken their stout defense. Dropping Christine Sinclair back behind the forwards was another critical innovation, allowing her to orchestrate the attack from a deeper position, and then crash in behind to pick up second balls and knockdowns.

Portland didn’t have anything close to their best game of the year in the final, but it was enough to get the job done. They played a composed, compact, and stultifying game—conceding plenty of marginal chances but stifling the big ones. It wasn’t pretty, but no one in Portland will care much about that.

Loser: The beautiful game

All three of the games between these two teams this season were tight affairs, but this one took things to a different level. That’s not surprising, necessarily, since cup finals often end up being some of the least exciting games of an entire campaign. When the stakes are this high, teams play conservatively, looking to avoid mistakes, and the quality of play often suffers. This game was no exception.

In their postgame press conferences, both coaches specifically used the word “battle” to describe the game, and neither seemed to be using the term metaphorically. It was a tense and brutal affair, a grim and physical game, without much to recommend it in the way of skill or tactical quality.

Portland deserves special credit (or blame, depending on your perspective), making it clear from the first minute that they would match North Carolina’s aggressive style directly. This preemptive physicality ensured a choppy and violent game, with tight marking and aggressive tackling making it very difficult for either side to develop any rhythm.

To the extent that there was any real ‘beauty’ in the game, it came on the defensive side of things. In particular, North Carolina deserves credit here, for the way that their players moved as a unit. The interactions between the central defense and central midfield, in particular, were lovely. As Dahlkemper tracked a runner, Mewis would drop in behind to take her spot. As Erceg drifted out wide to fill in the gap left by an attacking fullback, Dahlkemper stepped left and Zerboni drifted in to close down the angles exposed by those moves. It was lovely stuff.

But this was the exception more than the rule. On the whole, these teams came to shut each other down, and they mostly succeeded. That did plenty to raise the tension but didn’t do much for the lover of the beautiful game.

Loser: Danielle Chesky, for calling a truly terrible game

As noted, this was a physical and violent game, and ultimately that comes from the teams who chose to play that way. But the final guilt has to rest with the referee, who allowed it all to unfold. While she got some hold back on the game in the second half, the first 45 minutes were a nightmare of escalating violence. I have written before about the problems with loose officiating in this league. And it would be hard to find a more representative example than this game.

There’s an unwritten code for referees: lighter punishments for star players, no cards early in the game, don’t make yourself the focus. Those all came together in this game, in the opening three minutes, when Tobin Heath barged into Taylor Smith from behind, dislocating her shoulder. It was about as clear a yellow card as you’ll ever see, but received only a warning. And things only escalated from there. In the opening half hour, there were at least half a dozen awful challenges, and dozens more examples of rough play. And Chesky still hadn’t seen a single foul that she judged worthy of a booking.

By the 39th minute, North Carolina was forced to make their second injury-based substitution, and the game had gone completely off the rails.

She eventually discovered the cards in her pocket and showed a couple to Portland players before the end of the half. And by the second half, with control at least marginally re-asserted, things started to look more like a soccer match and less like a game of rugby. But even with those improvements, the damage was mostly done.

The players deserve a referee who will punish dangerous play. The fans deserve a referee who will call fouls accurately. “Letting the players decide the game” is a canard, and you only need to watch this match to see why. By letting violent play go unpunished, Chesky didn’t stay out of the limelight; she made herself the story, to the detriment of the game that everyone was hoping to see.

Winner: The NWSL, for turning the corner

The NWSL suffers under the weight of history. Previous women’s soccer leagues have generated far greater fanfare, bigger audiences, more excitement, only to fold after three years. This league has survived, but sometimes has seemed to achieve this success at the expense of intensity or excitement. It can feel like the unloved stepchild of the US Women’s National Team, a training ground to keep them fresh but not something to generate much passion.

But, increasingly, that narrative is falling apart. Sure, some of the old guard clearly didn’t value the league, and maybe some of the current stars don’t treat it entirely seriously. But you only have to look at the passion and commitment and intensity of the players in this match to see how much it matters.

For the young stars of US soccer—players like Sam Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, Lindsey Horan, and Lynn Williams—the NWSL has always been a part of the landscape. To them, this is the pinnacle of their professional achievement, and there is absolutely nothing second rate about it. They care. They care a whole lot.

I talked to Sam Mewis in the mix zone after the game, and she had the demeanor of someone who had just lost the World Cup final. The intensity, the passion, the commitment that she feels about the national team…it is all there in precisely the same degree for this league.

And that is a great thing.

Winner: Orlando, for doing a great job hosting

There has been a lot of discussion in the past week about future NWSL finals. Should the league return to a system of allowing the top seed to host, or persist with the predetermined venue? There are fair arguments on both sides (and decent arguments for going an entirely different third direction), but one huge advantage of a preset location is the opportunity for the league and media to plan ahead of time, and to showcase the nicest venues on offer.

This is not a knock on North Carolina, who I’m sure would also have done a great job hosting. But Orlando gave us a fantastic experience, and deserve some recognition for the work they put in. It’s my favorite stadium experience of any in the league, with a beautiful pitch and a wonderful design. The accommodations for the media day on Friday were stupendous, the press facilities were excellent, and the staff went above and beyond the call of duty to give us a great experience.

While the overall attendance numbers were less than ideal, the pre-set location gave a lot the league’s superfans a chance to attend. And in many ways, that’s more important than the simple topline number. Making it easier for those who care the most to make the pilgrimage should be a big priority. The NWSL final should be an Event—and Orlando did it’s best to help that process along.

Shoutouts are also deserved for Jen Cooper, who put on a great WoSoCo, and for the supporters groups of teams all around the league who made the journey and showed up strong. And an extra special mention goes to the Riveters, who flew 3000 miles to support their team, and helped bring the intensity and excitement that this game and this league deserves.

Image courtesy of Kat Farris