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The Lowdown: Thorns took unexpected path to title

Tina Ellertson didn't join Portland Thorns FC until July 31, but she played a key role in their NWSL Championship game victory with 10 players. (Photo Copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

It was the first group of Portland Thorns FC players—acquired via allocation—that were responsible for the club being stamped as National Women’s Soccer League favorites.  It was ironic then, that it took a contribution from the last player on the roster to help lock down the title.

Tina Ellertson entered the 2013 season thinking she was heading to retirement, even after the Thorns acquired her rights in the Supplemental Draft.  “I wanted to stay home with the family and (was) thinking it was time to hang up my boots.”  Then Cindy Parlow Cone called and told Ellertson the Thorns needed some help in back.  Ellertson jumped at the chance and joined the team on July 31, the roster freeze date.

[More: Full coverage of the NWSL Championship from Rochester, N.Y.]

Barely a month after agreeing to join the Thorns, the 31-year-old World Cup veteran was standing between the benches awaiting the biggest assignment of her life: settling down the back line after the ejection of Kat Williamson and help nurse a 1-0 lead while playing a woman down.

“Cindy and I talked at halftime and she was like, ‘Tina we’re going to get you in, be ready, be ready.’  So I was ready,” Ellertson said.  “I wasn’t quite ready for that.

“But I tried to just calm the team.  And whether we have seven, eight, nine, 10, it doesn’t matter.  This team is amazing.”

Having to see out the final with 10 women was a fitting conclusion to a Thorn season that ended exactly where it was supposed to even if very little of the journey played out as anyone was expecting.

[MORE: Heath’s free kick lifts Portland to first-ever NWSL Championship, 2-0 over WNY]

A week before the championship match the Thorns trailed FC Kansas City 2-0 with an hour to save their season.  Cone turned to her assistant and said, “Well, this isn’t how I scripted it, but we’re okay.  We can do this.”

“It wasn’t just the confidence that I felt,” Cone said after the club’s final training of the season.  “You saw it on the field with the players.  They just had this confidence about them that no matter what happened in the game they were going to persevere.  They were going to end out on top.  Just having gone through that in the season was huge for us.”

* * * * *

As a club the Thorns are extraordinarily guarded.  They frequently closed training sessions to the media after the first 15 minutes and on at least one occasion Cone refused to divulge her formation to the visiting webcast team.  Yet nearly everyone on the club has made reference to the adversity they faced during the season, just not with any level of specificity.

“Every great team goes through adversity,” Cone said.  “It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen it’s when.  We’ve had our battles for sure.”

Some of those battles were obvious.  Becky Edwards was just rounding into form when she tore her ACL in training, forcing Cone to reinvent the midfield.  Nikki Washington later joined Edwards on the long-term injury list and the regular season ended with Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan nursing injuries of their own.  Neither played a full playoff match.

Other struggles were below the surface.  The team rarely played attractive soccer and their midfielder came under fire.  The club’s supporters seemed to take umbrage with Cone’s tactics, particularly the decision early in the season to drop Christine Sinclair into midfield.

And there were comments that indicated instability.  After a frustrating, scoreless draw at Sky Blue FC, Alex Morgan said she was left feeling alone up top.  Following a home loss to FC Kansas City in the JELD-WEN finale that all but ended hopes of finishing in 1st place, Danielle Foxhoven hinted that not all of the Thorns were fully invested.

Details? No details.  But it was clear things were not always rosy in the Rose City.

“On paper we had so much talent and of course during the season we’re like, ‘come on what’s wrong what’s the missing piece,’” Karina LeBlanc said after posting a clean sheet in the final.  “But it’s about just working hard and going back trying to figure it out and watching tape.”

LeBlanc said the Thorns the first half of the season was more about individuals and not the team.  Part of the growing process she said, was having “conversations with one and other that sometimes you don’t want to have.

“When you do that you get deep and you develop deeper relationships.  Every conversation we had this season was for a reason.  Every loss we had was for a reason.  Every disappointment we had was for a reason.  And we just found a way to be stronger in the end.”

* * * * *

All of those conversations and all of that growing was put to the test over the final half hour of Saturday’s deciding match.  The Thorns had weathered a storm in the first portion of the match and were certainly heading for another one after the red card to Williamson.  When it happened Alex Morgan was standing by the 4th official waiting to enter the match.  Cone alertly pulled her back and went with Ellertson.

Tobin Heath said postgame that she didn't care how her sore right foot felt after hitting the NWSL Championship-winning goal. (Photo Copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

“You just want to make sure that you stay compact defensively,” the 31-year-old defender said about trying to defend a lead with 10.  “To me it’s all about communicating (and) organizing early.  It’s a little bit different because you are a man down so you just want to make sure that as that center back you’re organizing.”

[MORE: Heath’s sore right foot comes through]

Morgan eventually made it into the match to help kill it off and eventually made the final pass that mattered.  It found Christine Sinclair open and she buried her chance in stoppage time to make it 2-0 and essentially seal the trophy’s passage to Portland.

“I just screamed and hoped she heard me and she did,” Sinclair said.

There were many times during the season when Thorns supporters must have wondered why Morgan and Sinclair were lacking that connection.  But once Sinclair iced the final there was only joy as she raced over to the sizeable group of Riveters who made the long trip from Portland.

“This team is a team,” Ellertson said.  “And when you play like that and you play together you can go up against anything.”

Where are the goals coming from?

At the end it was a majestic free kick by U.S. allocation Tobin Heath that decided the NWSL season.  Canadian allocation Christine Sinclair accounted for the other goal and last of the season.  I’ve kept the regular season totals here and added the playoff totals in parenthesis:

Allocated players – 112 (5 playoff)*
United States – 63 (4 playoff)*; Canada – 32 (1 playoff)* ; Mexico – 1
College Draft – 22 (1 playoff)
Free Agent – 52 (2 playoff) *
Supplemental Draft – 24
Discovery et al. 23 (1 playoff)
Own Goals – 5

*-Includes goals scored by players who have joined other teams since originally joining the league

Note:  Free Agent refers to any player signed during the free agent window immediately following the college draft; Discovery includes any player acquired through means not included in any other category

Free Kicks

— Tobin Heath left the morning after the final to return to Paris Saint-Germain where she played earlier in 2013.  It was not immediately clear how long she plans on staying this time, or if her injured right foot will need time to fully heal, though she was seen in a walking boot after the game.

— The Breakers will announce their new head coach Tuesday.  They fired Lisa Cole on August 2 and used Cat Whitehill as the interim the rest of the way.

— Heath did not score in her seven regular season appearances but she had goals in both of the Thorns’ playoff wins.

— Kat Williamson became the fourth player red carded from the seven major women’s club finals played in the U.S. since 2001.  The others:  Nancy Augustyniak (2003 Atlanta Beat), Allison Falk (2009 Los Angeles Sol), and Beverly Goebel (2011 Western New York Flash).  Like Williamson, Goebel played for the winning side.  And like Williamson, Augustyniak was shown the door after scrapping with Abby Wambach.

— More Kat Williamson: she started every match this season but will be suspended for the opening match in 2014.

— Tina Ellertson indicated after the match that she would like to continue playing in 2014.

— It’s time to say it here:  There is a referee problem in the NWSL and the league would do well to be proactive about fixing it, or laying the foundation for fixing it, ahead of the 2014 season.

— Amy Barczuk should have gotten a straight red for her double challenge on Tobin Heath followed by a shirt tug and a shove.  She was spoken to afterwards but not shown so much as a yellow card.  That decision defies explanation.

— Great season by the Flash but they did not play a particularly good final.  They were not strong in the final third and wound up giving the ball away too liberally in that area. And while the Flash wanted a physical game, they couldn’t match Portland in that regard.

— The Angela Salem/Kat Williamson tussle was not picked up by the FOX cameras.  Check it out at the 1:15 mark of this video, the entirety of which is well worth the 8:49.

— The most under-appreciated player in the final was Marian Dougherty who got forward well and served some excellent long balls which led to some of the Thorns’ best chances.  The drawback was that she probably allowed Sarah Huffman too much space, but the Flash left back was not as productive getting forward as Dougherty.

— Most of us thought the Coach of the Year vote would come down to Kansas City’s Vlatko Andonovki and Western New York’s Aaran Lines.  Then Jim Gabarra wound up splitting them (with Andonovski winning).  There was at least mild support for Laura Harvey, and Rory Dames while two teams made mid-season changes.  No one talked about Cindy Parlow Cone.  But Cone got the last laugh when the Thorns took down the trophy.

This scene from the Portland airport is nothing short of incredible.

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