Thorns, Current ready for NWSL championship amid tumult

Christine Sinclair has seen the arc of the National Women’s Soccer League from its first day.

The Canadian striker has played with the Portland Thorns since the league’s first season in 2013. The Thorns won the title that year.

She’s still with the Thorns as the team readies for Saturday’s NWSL championship game in Washington D.C. against the Kansas City Current.

Sinclair, who won a gold medal with Canada at last year’s...

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Christine Sinclair has seen the arc of the National Women’s Soccer League from its first day.

The Canadian striker has played with the Portland Thorns since the league’s first season in 2013. The Thorns won the title that year.

She’s still with the Thorns as the team readies for Saturday’s NWSL championship game in Washington D.C. against the Kansas City Current.

Sinclair, who won a gold medal with Canada at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, has been an eyewitness to the growth of the league and, indeed, women’s soccer overall. Audi Field is nearly sold out for the game, which will be broadcast in primetime at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.

“I was fortunate to play in the first championship game, and I think outside of the people in Portland no one knew that the game was happening. So it’s what this league, it’s what the players deserve,” said Sinclair, soccer’s all-time leading scorer among men and women. “Women’s sports in general, all they need is a chance. People will watch, people will come if given the opportunity to do so. For this game to be on primetime on a major network, it’s just going to continue to grow the game to continue to inspire those youngsters watching.”

Yet this season has been challenging. The NWSL was rocked earlier this month by an investigation that showed systemic abuse and misconduct, spanning multiple teams, coaches and victims.

Commissioned by U.S. Soccer, the investigation led by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates was launched last year after two former players came forward with allegations of harassment and sexual coercion against former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley.

Riley, who was fired, denied the allegations. He was one of five coaches in the league who were dismissed or stepped down last year amid claims of misconduct.

The Yates report detailed how the Thorns mishandled complaints about Riley when he coached the team in 2014-15. In the wake of the report, the Thorns fired two team executives. But some fans have called on owner Merritt Paulson to sell both the Thorns and the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer.

“Obviously, this year has been an interesting one for us. But with the staff’s help, we’ve been able to come together as a team, come together as a unit, and just focus on playing the games. There’s only so much we can control and that’s what we do on the soccer field. That has been the focus,” Sinclair said.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Crystal Dunn came off the bench and scored in stoppage time to give the Thorns a 2-1 victory over the San Diego Wave in the league semifinals last Sunday, earning a spot in the championship.

Alexis Loera and Kristen Hamilton scored in the Current’s 2-0 victory over the top-seeded OL Reign, surprising the winners of this season’s Supporters Shield.

The Thorns have won two NWSL championships, in 2013 and 2017.

The Current began play in 2021 as an expansion team, with many of its players coming over from the defunct Utah Royals. Last season they finished in last place in the league.

The Washington Spirit won the 2021 NWSL championship.

STATE OF THE LEAGUE

The NWSL is awaiting the results of its own investigation into misconduct, in conjunction with the NWSL Players Association.

NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said the league’s top priority is its partnership with the players and taking direction from them.

“There’s nothing more important than us delivering on our promise to them and others that these players deserve and will play for a league that they feel proud to play in, and provides a healthy and safe environment for them to reach their full potential,” Berman said.

She said there is no timeline for the investigation, which will be thorough.

“In order for this league to heal, and for these players to trust the league and the future direction of the NWSL, they have to know that that is the sole priority of the joint investigation. And so that will continue to be our position despite the fact that a lot of people want us to be doing and saying more,” she said. “There will be a time where we have a conversation about corrective action and systemic reform.”

AWARDS

As part of the league’s championship week, the NWSL passed out its regular-season awards.

Thorns forward Sophia Smith was named the 2022 Most Valuable Player after scoring a club-record 14 goals.

Naomi Girma of the expansion San Diego Wave earned Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year honors. Wave coach Casey Stoney was chosen Coach of the Year, and Kailen Sheridan was the Goalkeeper of the Year. Wave forward Alex Morgan won the Golden Boot with 15 regular-season goals.

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