Portland Thorns finally capture another NWSL title the hard way

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The biggest crowds. The best roster. The most committed ownership. The most sublime soccer.

Any of it made the Portland Thorns the envy of a league. All of it made the franchise the model of what women's professional team sports, let alone professional soccer, can aspire to be.

None of it had produced a title since the league's first season.

Forgive them if this wasn't the best game of soccer, which is a kinder way to say that stretches of the National Women's Soccer League championship match against the North Carolina Courage were difficult to watch. Forgive the Thorns if Saturday's showcase at Orlando City Stadium was not the equal of last year's semifinal on their home field in Portland. Against essentially the same team, then the Western New York Flash, that was entertainment in its purest form.

It was also a game Portland lost a year ago, with the aesthetics of end-to-end rushes not enough to stop tears from the players on the field and the more than 20,000 people in the stands.

Forgive Portland coach Mark Parsons for describing Saturday's 1-0 win as "the most beautiful ugly game" he could recall, when it was the other coach who offered a more telling assessment.

"I didn't expect it to be a real battle," North Carolina coach Paul Riley said after he used the same word as a metaphor for the soccer matchup between midfields. "Like a real battle."

Now Portland has its second title, with the winning goal supplied by Lindsey Horan with a finish off Emily Sonnett's free kick in the 50th minute. If Saturday wasn't the best advertisement for the league, on the field or in sparsely filled stands in a host city without a rooting interest, the team that won -- the franchise that won -- was and remains the league's best advertisement.

"Finals are always ugly," Portland captain Christine Sinclair said. "They're always a battle out there. The unexpected happens. That's what makes it exciting."

It probably won't be long before the trophy is just about the only thing about the day that most people remember.

The semifinal a year ago between these teams, when Portland's regular-season title went for naught in a 4-3 loss, turned on two early goals for the Flash. Twice the Thorns rallied to tie the game, but they were always playing to catch up in a fast, frenetic game to their foes' liking.

Within the first two minutes of this year's final, Portland served notice that this wouldn't follow that script. North Carolina's Taylor Smith and Portland's Tobin Heath collided when Heath arrived late and behind her opponent. The contact that sent both to the turf left Smith on the ground clutching her right shoulder. Referee Danielle Chesky showed no yellow card on what didn't appear malicious but certainly involved a late foul.

Smith briefly returned to the game but was soon unable to continue. Kristen Hamilton, who shifted positions to replace Smith, was forced out of the game after an injury late in the first half on her own collision with Heath.

What started right out of the gate from Portland, North Carolina eventually returned. Heath fell hard after what Parsons said was a two-footed challenge worse than anything his team did. North Carolina's McCall Zerboni put in a hard tackle on Portland's Hayley Raso minutes after Raso checked Zerboni to the ground. A game between the league's two stingiest defenses was always likely to be tightly contested, but the first half lost any rhythm or entertainment value.

The best scoring chance of the first half, not to mention arguably the best bit of skill on display in those 45 minutes, came early, when North Carolina's Sam Mewis launched a shot from her own side of midfield. Caught far out of her own goal, Portland Thorns keeper Adrianna Franch could only watch with the rest of the crowd as the ball caromed off the crossbar.

Mewis was inches from replicating Carli Lloyd's bold strike in the 2015 World Cup final, but that was about the only resemblance between the two championship encounters.

"I think they had more tackles than passes in the first half," Riley said. "So they got into us, and that looked like it was their game plan. Unfortunately, it did knock us out of our rhythm."

Parsons said after the game that here were no extra instructions to his players to be physical. It was just the energy associated with a final and a desire to foil North Carolina's pressure.

"I'm surprised the way Portland played in the first half, to be honest with you," Riley said. "It's not that type of team. They've got some great players. I'd rather see the players play than kick people. But they chose the latter in the first half. At least in the second half, the game started."

The standout wasn't Sinclair, the Canadian legend and Portland icon who now has two professional and two NCAA titles in the city. It wasn't Heath, the thinking fan's soccer player and national team veteran whose season began just weeks ago after injury delays. It wasn't Amandine Henry, the big-ticket import from the top of Europe's professional leagues.

It wasn't even the goal scorer and MVP, memorable as that strike from Horan obviously was. The best performance, and the best individual moment, came from defender Emily Menges.

On alert all night against the size and speed of Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald, not to mention the forays forward from Mewis, Menges was up to every challenge. The one time it appeared that might not be so, when she beat McDonald to a spot in the box late in the second half but was shouldered off the ball, she recovered with a perfect tackle to thwart the chance.

"With Menges' last tackle, that just kind of showed who this team is and that we were not going to let another goal in," Horan said. "That game was not pretty whatsoever, but we came out, and we kept battling, and our defending was incredible."

She was instrumental on a day when Portland smothered the life, if not the courage, out of North Carolina. Outshot by statistics. Outplayed by Riley's estimation. But not outlasted.

"At the end of the day, I can't do anything but give props to the two Emilys," McDonald said of Menges and Sonnett. "They handled everything well. Adrianna Franch being so great in the air ... she's almost impossible to score against in the air. The fact that we didn't necessarily go against their weaknesses, that was kind of the downfall."

Menges was the 25th overall pick in the 2014 draft -- under the watch of Riley, then the Portland coach and familiar with her going back to youth soccer. Many of the 24 players selected ahead of her were not on rosters this season. But thrown into the starting lineup as a rookie because of injury to one of those big-name talents, the since retired and former U.S. defender Rachel Van Hollebeke, Menges held her own. Given the support available to players in Portland, given the continuity of a club with the means to not just add pricey new stars but also keep most of a back line together for years on end, Menges thrived.

Portland wouldn't be what it is without her and might not have won on this night without her. It is probably also true that she wouldn't be who she is without Portland. It is a symbiotic bond.

"The support we get from the club, the city -- it's a city win, everything about it," Menges said. "You can tell it's a team effort. Not just our team but the city."

Now the Thorns will return to a reception that promises a far better atmosphere than was available to either team Saturday night, with an announced crowd of more than 8,000 difficult to believe, given the vast swaths of empty seats. The idea of a neutral-site final, in a league in which the regular-season champion has yet to win the title, is one whose time has not yet come.

"I'm glad that's over," Horan allowed after the game, with Parsons' daughter on her lap.

It isn't necessarily a sentiment that suggests a classic night of soccer. And this was not.

But for five years, Portland has been this league's flagship. Now it has the title to go with it.