The most insane game of the NWSL season happened while everyone was gone for the World Cup.
I'm a Boston supporter through and through but I do like the Thorns. Since I was already in Vancouver for the World Cup, I decided to hop down to experience the atmosphere at Providence Park. This decision quickly turned out to be the most fortuitous thing I've done this month since substituting poutine for fries at a Canadian bar.
Portland Thorns vs. FC Kansas City fell in the lull between the end of group stage and the beginning of round of 16. The Thorns played with what you might call a lack of urgency for most of the game. They had shots and corners galore, but FCKC were the ones who were up 1-0 as the clock peeled off second after second. McCall Zerboni had disgraced herself earlier by walking on Shea Groom after Groom collided with Sinead Farrelly. Zerboni was sent off with a red card and the Thorns played on from the 70' with 10. They had five minutes of stoppage to salvage a point at home. They'd already gone six games in a row without a win.
The Thorns snatched a corner kick deep into stoppage. Goalkeeper Michelle Betos ran up from her end of the field. It's the desperation play, the last-minute, all-or-nothing, bet-against-the-house move. Nine times out of ten the ball sails into the box, a heaving mass of bodies desperately seeks height, the ball pops loose, and the whistle goes. Defeat, disappointment, it was worth a try.
And the first time, it was a no go. The ball bounced out—off of FCKC. There was just enough time for one more Thorns corner kick. Surely this had to be it: the very last play of the game, five minutes of stoppage all burned away with just this one last moment left to them.
This time Long lobbed the ball square into the center of the 18 where Michelle Betos waited, unguarded and free, and it was there that she threw her body into the ball headfirst. The ball slipped past Nicole Barnhart's outstretched glove, thudded off Frances Silva's chest—and dropped behind the line.
The stands lost their minds. It was the desperation-last-minute-one-chance-in-ten play and it paid off. Michelle Betos will probably never need to pay for another drink in Portland again.
And this all happened while the league was touting its players away in Canada, when the Thorns FO was selling a scarf featuring the flags of those gone on national duty with just a little hype left over for their domestic roster. The Rose City Riveters hoisted a tifo before the game that read "THINK GLOBALLY, WIN LOCALLY," perhaps a reminder to management that there is still a job to be done at home.
The league and its clubs are only too right to try to promote its higher-profile players. Big names and World Cup games can help draw eyeballs back to the league. But as much as we would like it to, life outside the World Cup doesn't freeze while a microcosm of international soccer games play out over the course of a month. The NWSL season marches on with or without its World Cup players.
This is the beautiful game too, as ugly and fraught as it was at times. Don't forget those who toil in near-obscurity for passion and pride. Don't forget that the players in the World Cup need homes when the tournament is over and cameras are off and crowds dispersed. Don't forget that competitive club play breeds talent and builds better player pools.
This game went from the gutters of grumbling frustration to the heights of frenzied elation—or vice versa, depending on the color of your jersey—in the time it took for that ball to bounce off Michelle Betos' head and land in the goal. That is the particular beauty of soccer—the beauty of sport. Plays of heart-stopping magnificence can happen anywhere, anytime, at the hands of anyone.
And yet only Michelle Betos could have scored that goal. Who else would have gone unmarked in the box, seemingly dismissed for not being a field player, only there to make up numbers for a wild last-ditch what-if scenario? The glory was hers, for the price of her hard work and the guts to do something as foolish as throw her entire body headlong at a solid object with no cushion to catch her. Anywhere, anytime, anyone. It happened in Portland on a beautifully temperate night at the hands of a 27-year-old goalkeeper who has bounced between leagues and countries and teams for years.
It happened in the middle of a World Cup, challenging those who watch women's soccer to remember to turn their eyes south and pay attention to those left behind.