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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Two-time NWSL champs return to Portland, bond with supporters

Some 28 hours and 2,500 miles removed from the moment they became National Women's Soccer League champions, the Portland Thorns celebrated with their closest friends — something like 1,000 fans who joined them at Providence Park on Sunday evening to bask in shared accomplishment.

Sure, it was ferocious defending and one perfect half-volley from Lindsey Horan that produced the 1-0 win over the North Carolina Courage on Sunday and made Thorns champions for the second time in five seasons.THORNS WIN IT ALL

But the real success story is the relationship between this soccer club and its fans.

Emily Menges wasn't specifically thinking about that bond when she scrambled to block Jess McDonald's close-range shot in the 83rd minute.

"I got myself into that mess, I had to get myself out of it. I whiffed it. I should have cleared it. Missed it. Had to go block it," Menges explained.

At Sunday's rally, Menges was among the players who — along with owner Merritt Paulson and coach Mark Parsons — expressed how the unique passion of Portland fans fueled the team throughout a long season and during a brutally physical and highly charged championship match.

Saturday's contest in Orlando was not an advertisement for the beautiful game. There were bad fouls from both teams. Two North Carolina players left with first-half injuries.

Menges said the choppy, chippy nature of the match was difficult to manage.

"It's terrible, and you never feel like you're in control, and the entire game is a complete battle. But that's how finals are, I guess," Menges said. "We played pretty (soccer) the entire season. That's just how soccer is sometimes."

Another soccer truth: It's not how many shots a team takes, it's how they take their chances.

In a game that saw North Carolina outshoot Portland 16-5, only one shot mattered. In a match that had too many nasty, late challenges, it was a quirky handball near midfield that set up Portland's goal.

Emily Sonnett drove a free kick into the 18-yard box, where it glanced off a Courage defender and bounced. Horan did the rest, making a difficult half-volley look simple and drilling her shot past goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland.

Forty tense minutes of defending remained. And, as time ticked away, the Courage became more desperate.

Menges described the final moments as "a terrible 10 minutes of soccer. But it was a team effort. And we spent probably nine of those 10 minutes in our own 18. But our whole team was back there. Everyone was defending and heading the ball out. It was amazing."

What followed was a whirlwind: Celebrations. Flying back to Portland to be greeted by several hundred fans at PDX on Sunday afternoon. The formal celebration Sunday evening at the stadium. There, together one final time in 2017, fans and their champions paid tribute to a quest fulfilled.

After leaving the stage, Menges took another look at the fans singing in joy and appreciation.

"We need them to be successful," she said, "and I hope they know that."

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