What to watch at this Saturday’s NWSL championship final match

One caveat: I never really “got” team sports or understood why people base their entire personalities on them until I realized in my 30s that it’s just another form of storytelling. A whole sport is like a genre of fiction, where each season is a volume in an ongoing series within a larger tale, while each match is like a page out of those books.

This Saturday, the US women’s pro soccer league has its championship game in Washington DC between the Portland Thorns and the Kansas City Current. It’s ok if that’s not huge news to you, but I wanted to try and explain the stories behind the upcoming game.

The Kansas City Current

The KC Current are a true cinderella story. In 2021, they finished last in the league during a year in which they didn’t even have a team name because they missed a deadline so they had to be called “The Kansas City Team” all year. They played games in a baseball stadium with obvious dirt/grass boundaries that put spectators down foul ball lines far away from the actual soccer field. They made a few promising late season signings, but still ended up in dead last.

This year, KC added more players and filed paperwork to be called The Current. Two of their new team members were superstars from the US Women’s National team with Olympic and FIFA experience, but in pre-season games they BOTH tore knee ligaments that put them out for the entire season.

The odds were certainly stacked heavily against the team at the start of the 2022 regular season, but they started playing in a new arena while sharing plans and breaking ground on the first (and ONLY!) dedicated women’s pro soccer stadium in the entire world to be built on Kansas City’s downtown waterfront. They also moved team operations to a new practice facility. There, they have state of the art gyms, fields, and even staff chefs.

The team hired a few more good players in the Spring to make up for their newest hires being laid up for the season, but got a rocky start, losing a few early games.

Then, everything changed.

A couple months into the new season, KC went on a record-breaking 13 game consecutive run (there are 22 games/season) where they didn’t lose a single match. And week by week they slowly climbed the charts, from last to eventually battling for first.

If you follow soccer on social media at all you’ve probably seen the team show up more often because they’re becoming famous for whole-team goal celebrations that crack everyone up.

It’s clear the team is having fun, and their joy is infectious. I’m a huge fan of the club, but I’m more interested in how quickly and successfully they improved.

My personal theory is getting the new practice facilities and support that came with it gave everyone confidence to perform. And it doesn’t look like they have a drill sergeant/abusive jerk for a coach (like pretty much every other team), and everyone is given space to be themselves and enjoy themselves.

The past few years have seen one scandal after another of abusive coaches and organizations messing with their players, and it seems like the KC Current has been able to avoid most all of it, and so they’re flourishing.

If you want a backstage view of the team, watch their YouTube channel which is highly entertaining, and especially their rookie player Elise Bennett’s personal YouTube channel. Watch some of her game day videos and you’ll see the team going for a walk around the stadium before each match, having meetings to get on the same page, all the while enjoying great food amidst a huge staff. It’s clear they are having fun and well supported while playing at the top of their sport.

The Kansas City Current is like a real-life Ted Lasso team, going from bottom of the table to a championship match in just one season. It’s pretty incredible to see and I can’t wait to see how they play on Saturday.

The Portland Thorns

The Thorns are my local team and I’ve been a season ticket holder for the last 4-5 years. I love them, but I know they catch heat from most of the league. The Thorns are kind of like the NY Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys. They’ve got a lot of money to spend, recruit the best players, and have rosters stacked with super stars year after year. Also—their fans can be assholes. They’re kind of the 900lb gorilla in the league, always near the top and weilding their might.

It’s funny how many former Thorns players end up doing well on every other team. Kansas City has the Thorns star goalie from last season, along with a great defender that used to play in Portland.

When the Portland roster is so deep, it means new players only get a couple games as their chance to shine before being relegated to a 2nd or 3rd string status for the rest of the season. Frequently, those new Thorns players are traded other teams in following seasons that turn them into starters where they develop into great players.

I imagine signing onto the Thorns is a double-edged sword, where there’s no time to prove your worth, you have to come out swinging and make incredible plays or else be replaced by a star veteran. I’ve heard similar stories about people being hired at Harvard, that essentially it’s almost impossible for a new professor to get tenure there, but Harvard being Harvard, people are happy to have it on their resume as it opens many doors to other things.

The Thorns season has gone predictably well, they’ve won most every home game in their stadium (that carries the highest per-game average attendance in the league). They’ve done well on the road as well. The Thorns did fall into some old habits where they start seasons strong, then fizzle out in the last couple months, gathering losses. Last month they kind of spiraled and lost a few against weaker teams. This all culminated in the last game of the season.

In their final regular season match, the Thorns were playing the worst team in the league, NY/NJ Gotham. Gotham hadn’t scored a single goal in their last 5 matches. So it should have been a slam dunk for the Thorns to win that game and secure “The Shield” as the league’s top team after the final match. But several players on Gotham were former stars on the Thorns and even though the Thorns were up 3-1 after halftime, they ended the game tied 3-3 putting them in second place for the season behind their rivals, OL Reign up in Seattle, who they lost the shield to.

But the Thorns are playing strong as of late and just won the semi final over a strong San Diego team. Given their deep bench and superstar players, this Saturday’s match is going to be a barn-burner that I can’t wait to watch.

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