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The Lowdown: Best of April NWSL history

Photo Copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer

With no National Women’s Soccer League action in April this year, let’s take a look back at some of the most memorable moments of Aprils past through the seven-year history of the league.

April 21, 2013: The Thorns are unveiled

Everyone knew the Portland Thorns were likely to be among the more successful teams when the NWSL was launched, but few could have predicted just what was in store when they made their home debut at what was then JELD-WEN Field. The opponent was none other than Seattle Reign FC, their instant rivals from up I-5.

The Thorns won the game, 2-1 on goals by Marian Dougherty (now Dalmy) and Alex Morgan. Jess Fishlock got her first to avoid the clean sheet. But the result was hardly the biggest deal on the day, especially considering the Thorns would pound the Reign three more times that season. The story of the night was the atmosphere. The Thorns’ MLS brethren, the Timbers, were at the start of their third season having sold every ticket to every home match (a streak still alive today). But when the Thorns were first launched, there was talk of playing some games at Merlo Field, a 4,000-seat stadium and home to the University of Portland.

The notion of the Thorns ever playing a match in front of only 4,000 people seems laughable seven years later. The opening-day crowd was 16,479, a figure eventually eclipsed by the attendance for the home finale in early August. Every home game that season topped 10,000 in attendance, as has every home game save one in the seven years since. They have sold out what is now called Providence Park on seven different occasions.

The opening-night crowd was especially noteworthy because it was well more than double FC Kansas City’s next-best opening day crowd and more than triple what the other six teams drew.

The Thorns quickly became the standard that all other NWSL clubs strive to match. The first home game in the history of the club started that journey.

April 12, 2015: Opening-day hat trick for Rapinoe

The Reign were coming off what was, to that point, the most remarkable regular season ever seen in women’s soccer in the United States as well as a devastating loss in the NWSL Championship. The Western New York Flash were coming off a season outside the playoffs following a four-year run that saw them win three titles from four finals all while changing leagues every year. The Flash had also committed to a rebuild and faced a daunting trip west to open the season.

The Reign were in control throughout, and the Flash were lucky to be down only 1-0 at halftime, partly due to Kim Little firing wide on a penalty. The Reign scored early in the second half and then the Flash got one back to make it 2-1 after 68 minutes. Then, the Megan Rapinoe show started.

At 70 minutes, she went high to out-leap Toni Pressley and head home Merritt Mathias’ cross to make it 3-1. In the 74th, she was the beneficiary of some great work by Little and Fishlock and ultimately got her second when she put away the rebound of Fishlock’s shot. And in the 86th minute, Rapinoe won a second ball off a long Hope Solo punt and then ran a delicious, give-and-go with Fishlock to complete her hat trick and seal the 5-1 scoreline.

For the Reign, it was the start of another strong season. They did not match the dominance of 2014 but did repeat as Shield winners before losing a second straight final to FC Kansas City. As for the Flash, the loss was the start of another long season. But in their starting lineup that day were Abby Dahlkemper, Jaelene Hinkle, Sam Mewis and Sabrina D’Angelo. Lynn Williams came off the bench. All five were making their pro debuts after being drafted by the club that January and all five would start the following season, when the Flash made an unlikely run to become NWSL champions.

Rapinoe’s hat trick remains the only one ever scored on a team’s opening-day match.

April 17, 2016: Sky Blue shock Reign

In what many consider the biggest single-game upset ever in NWSL history, Sky Blue became the first team to beat the Reign at Memorial Stadium after Seattle’s two years at home without tasting defeat. The Reign came in as two-time Shield winners while Sky Blue had an inexperienced new coach, Christy Holly, and started several rookies and castoffs.

Sky Blue’s opener was scored by former United States national team forward Tasha Kai, who was back in the professional ranks for the first time since playing in WPS in 2011. Hear early goal gave Sky Blue the lead on the road, but things appeared to go south for the visitors from there.

Hope Solo saved Sarah Killion’s penalty that would have made it a two-goal cushion at halftime. And then Merritt Mathias scored seven minutes into the second half to level the match.

Enter Kelly Conheeney. It was her NWSL debut after missing three years post-college due to the aftereffects of concussions. Conheeney scored with an unconventional “mule kick” (as commentator Lesle Gallimore called it) off a Taylor Lytle assist in the 67th minute to put Sky Blue ahead for good.

The Reign had been 18-0-6 at Memorial Stadium to that point including the playoffs. (they did lose a home match in the 2014 NWSL Championship that was played at Starfire Sports Complex). The loss was a sign of things to come as the club slumped to fifth that season and the one after.

Sky Blue did not make the playoffs but did prove to be a tough opponent in Holly’s first season at the helm. Conheeney never scored another NWSL goal.

Rose Lavelle’s 2017

Once upon a time, it looked like the Boston Breakers were going to be good. It was April 2017 and the team had just drafted Rose Lavelle with the first pick in the NWSL College Draft. Breakers coach Matt Beard put her directly in the starting lineup and she took immediate control of the midfield. The Breakers lost their opener in Kansas City — a game infamous for Amy Rodriguez scoring in her return from pregnancy only to tear her ACL in the second half — and then posted home wins over Sky Blue and the Reign.

Lavelle was the key cog in the engine. Against Sky Blue, Lavelle assisted on Natasha Dowie’s goal in a 1-0 win. It was the win over the Reign that turned heads. With Lavelle pulling the strings, the Breakers went up 2-0 after a quarter hour, the second coming on her first professional goal. They won 3-0 and, for the first time since the middle of the 2013 season, there was talk that the Breakers could be good.

Unfortunately, it did not last. Lavelle’s health became an issue and she missed a large chunk of the season. After going 2-1-0 in April, the Breakers did not win a game in May — or June. And by April of the following year, they were but a memory, disbanded after a sale of the club fell through in early 2018.

April 20, 2019: Thorns 4, Red Stars 4

In one of the wildest games ever, the Chicago Red Stars escaped with a point when Yuki Nagasato leveled the match in the 90th minute. Only three minutes earlier, Christine Sinclair went to the spot and put the Thorns ahead 4-3. The Thorns had also led 1-0 and 3-2, while the Red Stars had a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes. The game was 2-2 at halftime.

Sinclair’s penalty was her third goal of the day, giving her a second NWSL hat trick and first in five years. But the Red Stars’ 90th-minute equalizer was the first time since Mark Parsons became Thorns coach in 2016 the team had a result flipped on them with a goal in the 90th minute or stoppage time. It last happened before that on May 16, 2015, courtesy of the Breakers’ Kristie Mewis.

Free Kicks

— COVID-19 hit The Equalizer family over the weekend when Raj Theivam, father of Kieran Theivam, passed away after a battle with the virus. Kieran has worked in various soccer roles over the years including many contributions on this site. He is also a good friend and one of the nicest and most genuine people I have met in my WoSo journey.

— The latest NWSL training moratorium is now in place through May 15. For some mild context, the NBA was prepared to allow teams to open facilities where permitted this Friday, but that has been pushed back at least a week to May 8.

— A few weeks after that 5-1 Reign victory and Megan Rapinoe’s hat trick, Flash head coach Aaran Lines commented to me: “I don’t think I’ve ever lost 5-1 in my life.”

— An honorable mention that could have been on this list is the Orlando Pride’s opening home match in 2016 that broke the single-game attendance mark (since broken again by the Thorns).

— Another near-miss from March was the Thorns’ wild 3-2 win over the Red Stars in 2018 that included post-match comments from Chicago coach Rory Dames that appeared to call out Sofia Huerta’s defensive marking. Huerta was traded to the Houston Dash that June.


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