With the Portland Thorns officially eliminated from NWSL playoff contention before their last home game of the year against the Washington Spirit, attention at Providence Park turned to the final matches in the careers of goalkeeper Nadine Angerer and defender Rachel Van Hollebeke.
And that final match was a wild one, with six goals bookended by celebrations of those two players and their teammates. It finished 3-3, with the Thorns' 2015 struggles, potential, talent, and frustration all folded into one.
After going down 2-0 in the first half, Portland fought all the way back to take a 3-2 lead late in the second half on the playoff-bound Spirit, only to see Washington equalize just seconds after the Thorns' go-ahead goal. Portland had several chances to win the game 4-3 in stoppage time, but familiarly, failed to convert.
Angerer, the German World Cup and Ballon d'Or winner, was in turns tortured, elated, exasperated, and always gracious. Her body language alone provided all the fuel the Thorns needed in their second half comeback. Angerer's final game didn't go the way she planned, but hers was a career that hardly had room for a perfect sendoff match to add to a massive list of achievements and awards.
Angerer wasn't just a terrific goalkeeper in Portland, she was a terrific Portlander: genuine, interesting, warm, and almost universally beloved. This was a player who only enhanced her legend every time she opened her mouth. Keeping her around, if at all possible, is a must.
Van Hollebeke's final match—and final season as a whole—didn't go as planned either. She was one of the four players cut from Jill Ellis' final World Cup roster, and watched as her teammates went on to claim a glory and trophy that she missed out on in her time in the national team.
On this night, she was at fault for the opening goal after dawdling on the ball and seeing an open cross blocked, and had she continued, questions about her pace and fit in Paul Riley's system would have been loud this offseason.
But Van Hollebeke rebounded by setting up what was Jodie Taylor's go-ahead goal, and through everything, her positivity and appreciation of the good things in her soccer career and life were admirable. Now is as good a time as any for Van Hollebeke to bow out and start anew in medical school in San Diego. She has absolutely nothing left to prove.
The fans delivered too, with a full sellout of over 20,000 at Providence Park for only the second time in team history. Angerer was saluted in the first minute, Van Hollebeke in the 16th—corresponding with their respective jersey numbers—and the atmosphere for a nationally televised match on Fox Sports 1 was terrific throughout.
The fans were treated to a hell of a game too, with Portland's stirring comeback and some sensational skill from Washington's Crystal Dunn. It was almost good enough to forget about the fact that this Thorns team—the Yankees of the NWSL—were out of the playoffs with two games to go in the season. This campaign has, without a doubt, been a failure.
Whether you give Riley—whose job seems safe—and this team a pass because of their numerous injuries, World Cup absences, and problems integrating new players, or don't because of their budget, level of talent, support, and Riley's tactical struggles, one thing is for sure: Next year is do or die.
This year, the Thorns team never got right, World Cup absences or not. That's unforgivable, and it's what this organization will ponder for the next six months.
For this night though, and there is one more game at Western New York next week, the occasion was joyous. Thorns fans watched a frustrating team this year, but they were also watched an extremely likable group of players led by a likable coach who always tried to please.
As those players joined the Rose City Riveters in song on the capo stand after the match, that bond was at its strongest. Winning or not, Portland still has something that is the envy of the league—the same league that will host its championship game at Providence Park next month.
There's no telling how many of these players will be back in Portland next season. The Thorns have had a well-documented history of major offseason roster turnover. Hopefully the core of this team remains intact, if only so we can see what the 2015 season should have been in 2016.
This night, though, was about two terrific individuals, reminding us again that this sport is and always will be about the people who live it first and foremost. So as the Thorns get ready for their first fall without playoff soccer, nothing seems as important as wishing Angerer and Van Hollebeke the best. And that's just the way it should be.