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Amid scandal, women's pro soccer hits the big stage — a primetime NWSL Championship

A tumultuous season in this country's top women's professional soccer league comes to a close Saturday night – the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) championship match pits the Portland Thorns against the surprising Kansas City Current.

The game starts at 8 p.m. ET at a neutral site – Audi Field in Washington, DC.

The Thorns are one of the league's most accomplished and popular teams – this is their fourth appearance in the title match. Portland won NWSL championships in 2013 and 2017.

The Current were an expansion team last year and finished last in the league. The start to 2022 wasn't any better as KC didn't notch a win in its first five matches. But then 13 straight matches without a loss put the Current in position for a memorable worst-to-first turnaround.

How they got here

KC qualified for the final with an impressive upset win over NWSL power OL Reign.

The Seattle-based Reign won this season's NWSL Shield, meaning they had the best record, and their lineup was studded with U.S. National team stars like Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle. But in front of a record 21,491 fans at Seattle's Lumen Field, the Reign couldn't turn their offensive pressure (they outshot KC 16-8, had 14 corner kicks to the Current's 2, and possessed the ball 61% of the time) into any scores against KC goalkeeper AD Franch, and the Current clinched a 2-0 semifinal victory.

Meanwhile, in their semifinal match, the veteran Thorns appeared headed for extra time with another NWSL newcomer – the first-year expansion team San Diego Wave.

But in stoppage time, another U.S. National team fixture, Crystal Dunn, blasted a right-footed shot into the San Diego goal to give Portland a 2-1 lead that held up for the win.

Show of solidarity

The goal ignited an already amped-up crowd of more than 22,000 at Portland's Providence Park, the second largest in league playoff history.

The big, enthusiastic crowds in Portland and Seattle were welcome sights to players who, earlier in October, endured the release of a damning report detailing systemic abuse in the NWSL and elsewhere in women's soccer.

Portland figured prominently in the report and investigation led by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates. A former Thorns coach and executives, including team owner Merritt Paulson, were implicated in the scandal.

As Portland's match against San Diego approached, Thorns players acknowledged those in their loyal fan base who decided to stay away from games in protest. But several players pleaded with fans "on the fence" to show up.

"Whether you support the Thorns alone, any other team in the league, or women's soccer across the globe, we need you now more than ever," Portland goalkeeper Bella Bixby tweeted. "Seeing our supporters packing the stadium let's us know that you are bearing this heavy burden WITH us. You can view that showing up on game day is an act of solidarity with the women on the field who are time and time again punished for the actions of others. Ask yourself, for this one game, do you love and support the players more than you hate a front office?"

Cheering Portland fans responded in the affirmative – the Thorns, the Current and NWSL, hope the same sense of solidarity, and a desire to see great soccer, pulls in a big crowd Saturday in Washington, DC.

Fighting for prime time

For those not there, it'll be easy enough to watch, all over the country. CBS will televise the match in a first-ever prime time slot. It'll also be streamed on Paramount Plus and carried on Twitch for an international audience.

As is often the case with top-level women's sport, breakthrough happened only after disappointment and criticism.

Originally, the championship match was scheduled for 9 a.m. in Portland.

"Not only is it tough as a player to prepare for a game that starts at that time," former Kansas City defender Rachel Corsie was quoted as saying, "but I just don't think it's putting the game on a stage it deserves. You want it to stand alone and speak for itself, and it needs to be on at prime time and it needs to be given the opportunity to bring in the atmosphere and be an experience that fans can enjoy."

Ultimately that argument won the day. And now, the NWSL and its players hope 90 minutes (or more) of prime-time, top level women's soccer, provide a respite for a league battered by scandal, and promising to heal through change.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.