The National Women's Soccer League celebrated the conclusion of its season with a new champion on Saturday night as the Portland Thorns FC were crowned 2022 champions after defeating Kansas City Current 2-0. Sophia Smith scored the game-winning goal for Portland in the opening five minutes of the match, capping off an incredible season. 

The match provided closure to a championship weekend that had already celebrated several milestones in the build-up to the game. A tenth-year anniversary celebration for the league, the NWSL title game in the nation's capital, a near-capacity crowd, and a primetime slot on network CBS were all elements that highlighted a bright future for the league. The jubilation of events throughout the weekend was both refreshing and relieving for a league that has gone through two seasons of turbulence in the public eye. 

Just three weeks ahead of the NWSL Championship, U.S. Soccer released the full results of the independent investigation by Sally Q. Yates into allegations of past abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women's professional soccer. The investigation was commissioned by U.S. Soccer after several reports during the 2021 NWSL season detailed past allegations. The 319-page Yates report went into further detail, and the NWSL is still in the process of an ongoing joint team investigation between the league and the NWSL Players Association.

Despite several negative headlines and players' exhaustion with constantly shouldering the burden of fielding questions for solutions to problems out of their realm, the players have utilized the pitch as an area for joy with their teammates. Fans of the league showed up in record-breaking numbers throughout the postseason to support NWSL players, and a neutral site for the biggest game of the year continued the trend with a common theme -- Smith's budding greatness. 

An MVP showcase

NWSL Championship weekend showcased a league guided by player-first insight, star power, and the eagerness to move forward. A crowd of 17,624 in attendance - the second largest in NWSL Championship history -- erupted into bliss as 22-year-old NWSL MVP Smith opened the goal scoring in the 4th minute of the match with her speed and precision taking center stage:

Thorns midfielder Yazmeen Ryan provided service into the box that generated a chaotic own goal for a bit of insurance during an early phase of the second half for Portland, and the scoreline was enough for Portland's third championship. The title belongs to the team, but the stage was built for Smith -- her finals performance earned her NWSL Championship MVP honors. 

Smith's consistent performances in 2022 have been the catalyst for next-generation conversations across both club and country. She's provided 10 goals for the U.S. women's national team and has been a consistent starter in the lead-up to the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup next summer. Her 14 goals in NWSL were just one short of matching 2022 golden boot winner Alex Morgan

Her three assists for the Thorns this season is just a glimpse into the offense that she can generate. Smith's ability to get on the ball, split and spin defenders, and take players on one on one -- or four at a time --  opens passing lanes and pockets of space for teammates to exploit. She's doing all this while still developing her game at a young age in an equally young league. 

Thorns head coach Rihan Wilkinson -- a former Canadian international --  referred to Smith as a player with the potential to be the best player the United States has ever produced. If women's professional soccer wants to look ahead, they will need to do so with Smith as the face of the sport. To do otherwise would blatantly ignore the future of women's soccer in the U.S. and how it is currently trending.

If the sentiment around the 2022 NWSL Championship final is that it was a transitional, landmark, moment for the NWSL -- that includes the new faces and talent that represent the league moving towards its next decade. Smith's performance on a big stage and sounder bright lights was more than just a championship title-winning performance, it was the cementing of her undeniable place in the present era of women's soccer.