Portland's NWSL title success built around Sophia Smith and trying new things

Portland Thorns forward Sophia Smith's casual shrug of celebration said it all: "What, you expected anything else?" Four minutes into Saturday's National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) Championship, the 2022 league MVP scored to make sure there would not be any question about the result -- or why she was recently awarded the league's top individual honor.

"I kind of just did it," Smith said. "There's been a lot of people who don't think that I deserve to win MVP, so that was a little bit of, that's that."

The Thorns were expected to defeat the Kansas City Current on Saturday, which they did, 2-0 after an own goal from Addisyn Merrick in the second half, to claim a third league title. Portland are perennial contenders and narrowly missed out on winning the Shield and claiming the No. 1 seed in this postseason. The Current finished in last place in 2021 and widely exceeded expectations. Just making it to the final was remarkable.

Still, this Thorns season was hardly straightforward, and there were no guarantees that Saturday's final would be, either. Rhian Wilkinson took the helm a year ago for her first job as a head coach. She stepped into a team that was carefully constructed by another coach but one that was also missing key personnel, with Lindsey Horan on loan to Lyon and Crystal Dunn missing most of the season to give birth. The team required tactical changes, but nothing so drastic that it would disrupt an identity that was built over several years.

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Amid all this the organization was embroiled in turmoil over leadership's handling of the 2015 firing of Paul Riley, an undercurrent to this year's playoffs as well.

Following the release of former U.S. attorney general Sally Yates' report into systemic abuse earlier this month, Portland owner/operator Merritt Paulson stepped down as CEO of the club. Paulson, who has for so long been front-and-center for the public eye, did not travel to Washington, D.C., for Saturday's game. Fans have called for him to sell the team. Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn called for the removal from the league of anyone who enabled abusers, including anyone in Portland.

"It's been a long year," Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby said on Saturday, a few moments after placing the championship trophy on the table in front of her.

"We've gone through a lot of stuff that isn't in the job description," Smith said. "It just felt really rewarding. I just felt so proud of our team. We've just gone through so much and to be able to bring this back to our fans who have stuck with us through everything this year, it means so much to us."

Smith, 22, became the youngest goal scorer in NWSL Championship history. She was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NWSL Draft. Her potential was always obvious, but this was the year she became the centerpiece of the Thorns and a regular for the United States national team.

Portland relied heavily on Smith as Wilkinson tested different systems, starting the year in a 3-5-2 and switching to a 4-3-3 mid-summer. Wilkinson didn't have to make those changes; from the outside, everything appeared to be working as the Thorns scored the most goals in the league this year and had the best goal difference by a large margin.

But the new coach saw room for improvement. And even through all the tweaks and the personnel changes, the Thorns didn't lose sight of what made them a team accustomed to winning. Wilkinson made some gutsy calls but, each time, they worked out.

Japan international Hina Sugita emerged as one of the best newcomers to the NWSL, shuttling between a box-to-box midfield role and appearances on the wing. But Wilkinson benched Sugita for Saturday's NWSL Championship, with longtime Thorns captain Christine Sinclair starting in her place. This was one week after Wilkinson left Sinclair -- a longtime Canada teammate when Wilkinson was still playing -- on the bench for the semifinal in favor of a more agile lineup that could pressure the San Diego Wave (Portland won 2-1.)

Either of those moves could have backfired drastically. Instead, they are important tactical reasons for the Thorns' triumph.

"I think it's bull--- that she wasn't up for coach of the year," Smith said of Wilkinson on Saturday. "Because to come into a team like this, a club with this reputation, is hard in itself. To come in with all of this happening, all of these distractions going on, to come in with a team and implement her style but also take on what we had already built with this club is a really hard thing to do. I don't think people give her enough credit for that."

Bixby echoed her Thorns teammate, noting that Wilkinson got player buy-in from the start. Wilkinson said she can't speak to what the team was in the past. She was not around when Mark Parsons was the coach, at least not beyond those final weeks of 2021, when Wilkinson was about to be announced as the new coach and Parsons was splitting time with his next job as coach of the Netherlands women's national team (a role he has since departed.)

Undeniably, the foundation was there in Portland, from Smith and Morgan Weaver (the No. 2 pick in that 2020 NWSL Draft) to Sinclair and veteran defender Sauerbrunn, who did not put a foot wrong on Saturday in limiting Kansas City to zero shots on target.

The 2022 Thorns, however, were unique. They were the right blend of old and new, from players and coaches to tactics and ideas. They were adaptable in a competitive league that requires such a trait to the utmost degree.

"What I think I was able to do, because I had a team that was willing to do it, was try things," Wilkinson said. "That was really special with this group. I tried a 3-5-2, I tried different formations; I had a different formation tonight than I did for the semifinals. A team that doesn't believe in you won't do that; they won't follow you on that journey."

On Saturday, it culminated with exactly the performance the Thorns needed.