All season, the Portland Thorns dealt with the expectations that come with having Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair on the roster. They dealt with the frustration of bad patches in the season.
In the playoffs, they dealt with a 2-0 semifinal deficit, then survived an overtime match in the Kansas City heat. They dealt with injuries to Morgan and Tobin Heath. Then they faced Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and a tough, skilled home team with momentum in the Western New York Flash -- only to deal with controversy and a nerve-wracking 30 minutes with 10 players.
But the Thorns handled it all, winning the inaugural NWSL championship 2-0 behind a sublime free kick from Heath and a late insurance goal from Sinclair.
If you like the physicality of an English derby match, you'd love this game. The teams combined for 17 fouls in the first half, and that didn't include some off-the-ball shenanigans that the officials weren't in place to see. And yet at halftime, Western New York coach Aaran Lines told FOX Soccer that he wanted his team to do more to "initiate contact."
But it was a couple of fouls that led to the opening goal late in the half. Western New York's Amy Barczuk clattered into Heath at midfield, then grabbed her shirt and pulled her down. Heath expressed her displeasure, and Barczuk gave Heath a pointed shove.
A few seconds later, the Flash fouled again. Heath stood over the dead ball 25 yards out. The Flash defense may have been expecting service into the box for Sinclair, but it was a shot all the way -- a laser into the upper corner past Adrianna Franch that gave the Thorns a 1-0 lead that stood at halftime.
Video: Heath free-kick from distance breaks deadlock for Portland Thorns
Each goalkeeper had come up big before that. In the 12th minute, Flash teenager Samantha Kerr hung in the air like a balloon to get a head to a Wambach cross. Portland keeper Karina LeBlanc punched it off the crossbar, then scrambled to keep a poor clearance from crossing the line.
Franch had to make a similar save a few minutes later, with Sinclair rising to meet a tantalizing Marian Dougherty cross.
But the attackers showed a tentative streak in the first half. Sinclair, one of the best target players in women's soccer history, found herself on the right flank at times, and her crosses were not successful.
Each team had a terrific one-on-one chance within a two-minute span. Portland's Nikki Marshall got forward on a free kick, took a flick-on from Sinclair and had a clear path to Franch. She hesitated, then missed wide of the far post. Lloyd got a chance from a similar spot on the other side of the field, but she pulled her shot wide as well.
The Flash outshot the Thorns on the game, but it was Portland that wasted several more chances. Danielle Foxhoven waited too long when she was put through up the middle. Early in the second half, Angie Kerr dithered on the ball long enough to allow Sarah Huffman to force her wide, and her shot went high.
And the fouls continued. After Heath's goal, Flash midfielder Angela Salem, who had already been involved in a scuffle off the ball, went studs-up into Foxhoven, who stayed down for a while. Wambach tried to rally her team in the huddle while trainers tended to Foxhoven.
The Flash pressed hard after halftime, and they forced the Thorns into some awkward situations. Kathryn Williamson hauled down Wambach on a through ball and got a yellow that could have been red. Wambach screamed at referee Kari Seitz, who motioned for Wambach to zip it.
But Wambach got Williamson out of the game on a soft foul a few minutes later. Seitz produced a second yellow, then red.
The ejection changed Portland's plans. Alex Morgan had been warming up to return to action for the first time since suffering a knee injury earlier this month. Coach Cindy Parlow Cone pulled Morgan back and instead inserted defender Tina Ellertson for Heath.
The substitution was an intriguing gamble for the rookie coach. Ellertson is a former national team defender, but she joined the Thorns with a few weeks late in the season, returning from a lengthy hiatus. Heath was returning from a foot injury but was also one of Portland's more dangerous players.
Video: Sinclair goal doubles Portland Thorns lead in stoppage time
Western New York still ramped up the pressure. Wambach and Lloyd each got a head to a free kick that pinged around the box before LeBlanc could collect. With a long free kick near the sideline, Brittany Taylor opted to put it on frame, and LeBlanc barely got back on her line to punch the ball off her crossbar and back into play, leaving the defense to hustle it clear.
In the 71st minute, Morgan at last entered the fray. But Portland, playing with 10 against a desperate Flash team, saw little of the ball.
But soon after the referee signaled an excessive five minutes of stoppage time, the Flash defense simply lost track of the game. Off a throw-in, Morgan found Sinclair wide open in the middle. The Canadian striker patiently sized up Franch and deposited the ball inside the far post for the Thorns' second goal.
The game was a few stages beyond chippy, but Seitz failed to show cards for players who were diving. That's not what the NWSL wants to showcase. But the first-year league could still celebrate the great moments of its stars, a championship that clearly mattered to everyone on the field, and finally, a worthy winner.