NWSL's duality on full display as Thorns stun Wave in cathartic playoff nail-biter

PORTLAND, OREGON - OCTOBER 23: Crystal Dunn #19 of Portland Thorns FC celebrates her goal following her team's win over San Diego Wave FC in the NWSL semifinals at Providence Park on October 23, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Amanda Loman/Getty Images)

Crystal Dunn was five months removed from giving birth, and the Portland Thorns were three weeks removed from the reignition of scandal, and the National Women's Soccer League was still grappling with years of abuse when, a little before 4 p.m. in Portland on Sunday, the cathartic moment arrived.

It dribbled out to Dunn at the edge of the penalty area in the 93rd minute of a playoff semifinal. Thousands of conflicted fans stood and held their breath. And Dunn rocketed a legendary winner past the San Diego Wave.

She sprinted away in ecstasy, and Oregon exploded. And at the end of a year riddled with unfathomable heaviness and heartbreak, in Portland and all across the league, there was joy.

Pure, unadulterated joy.

And there was a duality that has come to define the NWSL: It is flawed, devastatingly flawed, and yet time and time again, it endures and thrills.

Its 2022 playoffs began in the shadow of the Yates report, the U.S. Soccer-commissioned investigation that laid bare how the league, its owners and executives, and its power imbalances had "failed" players and exposed them to emotional, verbal and sexual abuse.

It left players "horrified, and heartbroken, and frustrated, and exhausted, and really really angry," as Thorns captain Becky Sauerbrunn said.

And it left us all wondering how, while bearing such an emotional burden, they could put on the jerseys of the clubs who'd failed their peers and go play soccer.

But they did. Oh, they did alright. They drew unprecedented crowds and delivered rousing entertainment.

In the quarterfinals last weekend, Kansas City stunned a packed stadium in Houston with a goal in the 10th minute of stoppage time.

That same night, Alex Morgan sent San Diego to the semis in extra time, in front of 26,215 strong, the new playoff attendance record.

And then, the following weekend, it was Portland's turn.

The Thorns had been at the center of scandal ever since former coach Paul Riley's alleged sexual harassment and misconduct burst into the public sphere last fall. The Yates report revealed and confirmed how owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson had allowed Riley to continue coaching in the league for six years despite knowledge of the sexual harassment allegations against him.

Current players felt the weight of scandal as it rocked the organization, and persisted from 2021 into 2022, and especially after it exploded again earlier this month.

"The last few weeks have been hard. The last two years, for the majority of this group, have been very very heavy," head coach Rhian Wilkinson said Sunday. "It takes a toll on them. I know people talk about it, but I don't think you fully understand what they've had to take on."

Fans felt it too. They felt lied to and wronged. Some struggled to reconcile supporting a club that had abused its power as an institution.

"It's hard for people to come to the stadium today. I understand that," Rhian Wilkinson said Sunday. "And some people couldn't."

But most arrived at a simple justification: They had to show up to support the players, the ones with whom they'd built an unbreakable bond since the day they all arrived at the club. That bond is what made the Thorns a destination for NWSL stars, and the league's most commercially successful franchise. The Rose City Riveters and the entire red-clad supporters' section had made Providence Park the women's soccer capital of the U.S. for years.

"Them showing up is exactly what we want," Dunn said. "Without the fans, the game's just not as fun."

"And the players needed [them]," Wilkinson pointed out. "They needed to see that they're loved."

So the fans called for the ousters of the men implicated as enablers. They pressured sponsors into diverting funds from the club directly to the players. And then they did as the players had asked: They showed up in force. They came with signs targeting Paulson, but also with their collective voice. And for more than 90 minutes, they used it.

They stood, and rarely sat, and constantly sang. They marveled as international stars and U.S. teammates dueled. They groaned when San Diego went ahead, but roared when Raquel "Rocky" Rodríguez pinged a majestic volley into the top corner.

For 70-plus minutes thereafter, 22,000 of them cheered and chanted through debilitating nerves. The Thorns gradually took control of the second half and fortified their belief. But the breakthrough just wouldn't come. Wave keeper Kailen Sheridan made save after save. Thorns forward Morgan Weaver got the chance of a lifetime, but headed it over the crossbar.

Then up stepped Dunn, 156 days into motherhood, the perfect representation of the enthralling narratives that the NWSL regularly churns out.

There were times since she gave birth to her son, Marcel, that Dunn thought to herself: "Maybe I just take the rest of this year off." But she pushed her changed body "to the absolute limit," and returned to the field in less than four months, and she did it all precisely to be available for games like this.

She hit the winner, and ignited an "explosion of emotions for the whole stadium, the whole city," as Rodriguez said.

And she offered a reminder for all of what she and her teammates remind each other all the time: "That this game is fun. We enjoy playing this game. We find so much joy in it."

"There have been things that sometimes make you feel like you can't be your best version of yourself," she acknowledged. But again and again, the players of this flawed but potent league find a way to be just that.