by: COURTESY OF HOWARD SMITH - The Portland Thorns celebrate together at Sahlens Stadium in Rochester, N.Y., after claiming the National Womens Soccer League championship with a 2-0 finals victory over the Western New York Flash.The Portland Thorns FC did what may be the most difficult thing to do in sports — they won a championship when it was expected of them.

The road to the Thorns’ 2-0 win Saturday in Rochester over the Western New York Flash for the National Women’s Soccer League title was not without potholes and bumps.

After a strong start, the Thorns dealt with an injury starting midfielder Becky Edwards.

Then, between June 22 and Aug. 7, Portland stumbled, going 2-4-4 and slipping into third place in the NWSL.

In the league semifinal, the Thorns found themselves down 2-0 against FC Kansas City, but were able to rally for a 3-2 overtime victory.

In the final, before an announced crowd of 9,129 at Sahlen’s Stadium, the Thorns were up 1-0 when Kat Williamson was ejected for her second yellow card. The Thorns had to play the final 34 minutes with only 10 players, but they were able to hold on and get an insurance goal in stoppage time to bring the championship trophy back to the Rose City.

“I’m so proud of all the young women on this team,” Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone says. “They dug deep and played with so much heart and so much unity against the odds.”

Before the inaugural NWSL season, the league allocated the Thorns a wealth of talent: including strikers Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan, midfielder Tobin Heath, defender Rachel Buehler and goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc. The players talked about winning a championship from the moment they stepped onto the practice pitch.

Cone was more cautious, though.

“I understood where people were coming from saying they should hand us the trophy when we got our allocated players,” Cone says. “But that’s because they didn’t understand the wealth of talent in this country and the talent of the Canadian and Mexican national team players. I had a better understanding about how much parity there really was going to be in this league, even though we initially started out with the bigger name players.”

Portland got off to a fabulous start, going 8-2-1, with 25 points.

“We made these goals of being a championship team,” LeBlanc says. “We had so much confidence going in.”

Cone says she did not have to deal with the egos of her star players. Rather, they helped her by providing leadership.

“I felt really lucky to have not only the talent, but also the leadership we had on this team,” Cone says. “We had several people who at any given time took over the leadership. ‘Sinc’ was our captain along with Rachel Buehler, and they were fantastic captains and they led in very different ways. Karina LeBLanc stepped up and led in her way. Alex Morgan stepped up and led at times, as did (midfielder) Allie Long. We had leaders all over the field.”

Edwards tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, and the Thorns went into a temporary tailspin.

“Becky is such a great player, we felt her loss,” LeBlanc says. “It was the team growing and figuring out the solution. Then, Allie came in and became a big-time player for us.”

Cone says that leaders stepped up to help the Thorns through that rough patch, though. She also says dealing with the slump helped the team grow closer and develop the mental fortitude it would need in the playoffs.

“Losing Becky Edwards to injury, going through a slump, you really rely on your leaders to bring the group together,” Cone says. “That adversity and that period when we were struggling a little was key to our success. We battled through that and figured out a way around it. Having gone through that gave us the resolve, gave us the confidence, gave us the belief in each other as a team that it doesn’t matter what’s thrown at us, we can handle anything.”

That resolve was critical to the Thorns against FC Kansas City in the semifinal. Just 25 minutes into the match, the Thorns were down 2-0 and staring into the oblivion of lost promise and expectations.

Heath scored in the 33rd minute, substitute striker Tiffany Weimer gave the Thorns the equalizer in the 65th minute, and the match went into overtime. In the 103rd minute, Long got a pass from Weimer and found the back of the net, sending the Thorns to the championship.

Says Cone: “Having Tiffany Weimer sub in and get a goal and an assist, having Courtney Wetzel sub in and do all the defensive work and tracking everyone all over the field because everyone was exhausted, and then you have Allie Long, who’s been steady all season, getting the game-winning goal, it was incredible.”

In the championship match, the Thorns took a 1-0 lead in the 40th minute when Heath made a brilliant strike on a free kick, sending the ball over the wall and into the top left corner of the net. Then, in the 56th minute, Williamson got tangled up with Flash striker Abby Wambach and was given her second yellow card of the night.

The Thorns would not allow the Flash to capitalize, though.

LeBlanc says the Portland defense “knew we’d been up against some adversity before. If you saw the look in the players’ eyes, no one freaked out. We just had the belief. It was a testament to how strong this team was and the character of this team.”

In the 71st minute, Cone subbed in Morgan, who had missed three weeks with a medial collateral ligament sprain. Cone wanted the superstar in the match, however.

“We only had 10 players on the field, and I just told her, ‘Work as hard as you can defensively, put as much pressure on them as you possibly can and when we win (the ball) let’s try to keep it,’” Cone says.

Morgan did everything Cone asked of her and more. In stoppage time, Morgan found the ball at her feet and played a pass forward as Sinclair streaked into the box. Sinclair got the ball and put it away, securing the championship.

Before the season, if the Thorns had put on paper how they wanted the championship match to go, they could not have drawn it up much better than Sinclair and Heath scoring, Morgan notching an assist and Buehler and LeBlanc pitching a shutout. Cone says the championship was about more than just the superstars, though.

“It really was a team win,” she says, “even for the players who didn’t get into the game. They were cheering the team on. Everyone played a role and everyone did everything they possibly could to help the team win. Without that attitude and that mentality and that confidence, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

LeBlanc already is thinking about next year, when the Thorns likely will be expected to win again.

“We want to create a legacy in Portland,” she says.

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