The Portland Thorns have been one of the most successful teams in the history of the NWSL, winners of league titles in 2013 and 2017 and the NWSL Shield as regular-season champions in 2016.
But Portland never did what it did on Saturday, hoisting a trophy before its fans at Providence Park.
It was a special feeling for the Thorns to capture the NWSL Challenge Cup, 6-5 in a shootout in the final over Gotham FC even if only about 3,800 fans were on hand due to local restrictions capping the crowd at 15 percent of capacity.
"It's nice to finally a trophy in front of the home fans," said Christine Sinclair in a post-game interview on the field.
The Canadian star is the lone Thorn who is still around from the 2013 and 2017 championship teams and from the runner-up team in 2018. The Thorns hosted the final that year before 21,144 fans at Providence Park -- the stadium capacity before renovations were completed -- but lost to the North Carolina Courage, 3-0, falling behind on a pair of first-half goals.
When Portland won the 2016 Shield, it clinched with a victory at Chicago. In 2020, it won the Community Shield as the team with the best record in the Fall Series but no fans were allowed.
On Saturday, Sinclair put the Thorns ahead in the 8th minute, but they could not pad their lead despite numerous chances. The best came in the 39th minute when Lindsey Horan rattled the post with a free kick. Three minutes earlier, Simone Charley broke in on goal but was denied by Gotham FC keeper Didi Haracic.
The Bosnian international kept Gotham FC in the game long enough to get an equalizer from Carli Lloyd with a header on its first shot on goal of the match in the 61st minute.
But Portland was undaunted and pressed for the winner. Charley came close in the 72nd minute, beating Haracic but being denied by defender Mandy Freeman with a goal-line clearance. Haracic was again up to the task in the 86th minute, denying Sinclair with a fingertip save.
“I did think the game should have been wrapped up way much earlier," admitted Portland coach Mark Parsons. "And look, we got away with it today because that could have snuck up and gone the wrong way, and that would have been a really harsh lesson for us. The goal is not to do that again in the future.”
Haracic's counterpart, Portland keeper Adrianna Franch, was named the Challenge Cup MVP. With the score tied 5-5 in the 7th round of the shootout, she made a diving one-handed save on Japanese Nahomi Kawasumi's attempt, setting it up for Morgan Weaver to deliver the winner.
Franch started in goal in all three previous NWSL finals Portland played in, though she was on the Western New York Flash when it fell to the Thorns in 2013. She went to the 2019 Women's World Cup as the USA's No. 3 keeper and was in goal for the USA on March 11, 2020, when it beat Japan, 3-1, the night before the sports world shut down due to the pandemic. But she missed all of Portland's shortened 2020 season -- the Challenge Cup and Fall Series, which the Thorns won -- with a knee injury.
“Outside of the rehab, everybody struggled with 2020," she said. "It was a rough year for everyone. The way this team performed last year, that's what got us here today. The growth that got us here today started last year.”