NWSL Rewind: Portland Wins Emotional First-Ever Semifinal in 2013
The Portland Thorns defeated FC Kansas City 3-2 in an exciting start to the inaugural NWSL playoffs after an extra time goal from Allie Long in the 103rd minute. The game, which represented a breakthrough in women's soccer in the United States, saw a crowd of 4,000 fans witness the beginnings of a Portland club that has housed some of the brightest stars in the game, including Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair.
For all the entertainment that the game provided, it also showed just how far the league and game were from stability. The game, which featured stars of the USWNT on both sides, was played on a high school football field. Lines from both lacrosse and American football provided a confusing image that hearkened back to nearly a decade before, when soccer was on the fringes of popularity.
It can't be understated just how chaotic the landscape was then for the women's game. The NWSL was birthed from the closure of the WPS and WPSL. Both leagues had not made it past their third seasons, shuttering after multiple failed attempts to create a framework for success. The NWSL would break that record in the coming years, but initial expectations were low at best.
In stepped Portland and Kansas City. After 22 games, both teams had 38 points and an identical record. A three-way tie with the Western New York Flash meant that the inaugural playoffs would see a true best-of-the-best competing in the four-team playoff format. Sky Blue, which finished just two points back, would also lay claim to the first NWSL title.
The teams didn't disappoint as both Portland and KC battled physically through 90 degree weather. FC Kansas City jumped out to an early lead in the 12th minute when Erika Tymrak beat Thorns keeper Karina LeBlanc with a shot from outside the box. KC pushed the game, pressuring Portland into mistakes. The Thorns attempted to counter with physicality, but it did little to stop KC's momentum. That pressure paid off again in the 25th minute, when KC doubled the lead with a header from Melissa Henderson.
Portland wasn't to be outdone and responded just before the half. Heath completed an offensive surge in the 33rd minute, burying a shot after a deadly passing sequence. Entering the second half, it was all Thorns, pressuring the home team and eventually getting the equalizer from substitute Tiffany Weimer in the 65th minute.
As the game dragged into extra time, Portland battled the elements as well as injury. Heath was taken off late in the second half, and star striker Morgan was still recovering from an ankle injury that would keep her on the bench for the final as well. Luckily for Portland, the fatigue affected KC as well, and a giveaway in midfield led to the effort by Long that would seal the game and the epic comeback.
Overall, both teams showed the potential of the NWSL and demonstrated why the league has survived to be the most successful women's league in the sport. FC Kansas City may have moved to Salt Lake City Utah, but its effort and drive in this first season helped establish what was to come. On the other side, Portland began a stretch that has made it an important part of the northwest sports scene.