The NCAA women’s soccer tournament begins Tuesday in North Carolina. Personally, every time the College Cup rolls around I think of one of my biggest regrets from my college days: It was too expensive to buy a ticket for the 2005 College Cup, which is within walking distance of my dorm at Texas A&M was removed. Had I decided to skip a few meals at Whataburger and Taco Cabana, maybe I could have bought a ticket to see what, in hindsight, was one of the greatest women’s college soccer teams ever put together.
Had I made my way to the Aggie Soccer Stadium, as I did a dozen times earlier in the year to see G. Guerrieri’s Aggies, I would have seen two of the most famous football players wrap up an incredible season with a national title. Once upon a time, before becoming legends internationally, Megan Rapinoe and Christine Sinclair conquered college football together.
The Portland Pilots dominated the 2005 women’s college football season, becoming the second school to graduate as the undefeated champion with a 23-0-2 record. The pilots won the title game 4-0 against UCLA for a second title in four years. I wish I had been smart enough to attend.
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By the turn of the millennium, women’s NCAA football was North Carolina and everyone else. In 2000, the Tar Heels won their 16th NCAA title – the rest of the country had won three titles combined. However, that changed in part thanks to the Portland team assembled by Clive Charles.
Charles was born in England and played for West Ham and Cardiff City before going overseas to join the Portland Timbers in the late 1970s. He eventually turned to coaching and was hired as a Portland men’s coach and later as a women’s coach at the same time.
Diagnosed with cancer in 2000, Charles led the pilots to his senior women’s college football title his senior season, beating Aly Wagner’s defending champion Santa Clara 2-1 in the 2002 College Cup final, with then sophomore Christine Sinclair scored both goals.
“It was about being successful for him and winning it for him,” Sinclair said later. “Of course we didn’t know what the outcome of his illness would be, but this season was about winning it over to him. Peak at the right time. “
Charles died less than a year later, aged 51.
Charles’ # 3 jersey is a Portland soccer icon and remains the only number withdrawn by the Timbers. He played a role in the development of players like Sinclair, Kasey Keller, Steve Cherundolo, Tiffeny Milbrett and Shannon MacMillan.
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Garrett Smith, a 10 year old assistant, took over the pilot program in 2003. One of his best early steps as head coach was convincing twin sisters Megan and Rachael Rapinoe to attend the small private Catholic school against rival Santa Clara.
“The soccer team was cool, the field was fantastic, Portland was perfect and the college vibe was what we were looking for,” Megan Rapinoe later wrote.
Sinclair was redshirted for the 2003 Women’s World Cup with Canada and Megan Rapinoe was redshirted in 2004 to represent the USWNT at the U-19 Women’s World Cup. When Sinclair and Rapinoe finally entered the field together in 2005, it was immediately clear that something special was brewing. In their first game, Rapinoe scored two goals and Sinclair once scored a 3-0 win over Stanford No. 14.
“About five minutes into the first game … you just knew it was special as a center-back to watch all these great players in front of me,” said Emily Michaelson, then sophomore, in 2015. “That was something I had never experienced before. “
The Pilots beat all comers early in the season, including out-of-conference wins against Stanford No. 14, Wisconsin No. 11, West Virginia No. 19, Texas No. 21, and Arizona No. 21. Portland had one at the start of the conference game little fear when Pepperdine # 10 drew 1-1, but that was as close as anyone had dealt with UP in the regular season. The pilots finished their WCC title with a 3-0 win over Saint Mary’s and it went on to the NCAA tournament.
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Sinclair scored five goals in the first two games of the tournament and Rapinoe scored two goals in the third and fourth round to reach the College Cup in College Station, Texas. (Aggieland hosted after ruling the country in 2003 and 2004, but Portland led the nation from 2005 to 2014 every year).
In the semifinals, Portland faced Penn State in what many viewed as a de facto title game. In fact, it was the Drivers’ toughest game of the year. Neither team could find a way to score. UP keeper Cori Alexander called for seven saves to keep the Nittany Lions off the scoreboard. Erin McLeod, now Canada’s top-staffed goalkeeper of all time, scored 10 saves for Penn State, including two against compatriot Sinclair.
The game ended goalless through regulation and overtime, technically a second draw on the record books for Portland, and the teams went to a shootout. Coach Smith was glad he had saved his trump card for the fifth and final kick.
“Knowing that Christine Sinclair had a chance to win and make it to a national championship final was pretty comforting. It was the right person at the right time,” said Smith.
Sinclair sent McLeod the wrong way and Portland made it to the final.
UCLA remained the only team to stand in the way of an unbeaten season and a second national title. The Bruins defeated Florida State 4-0 in the other semifinals, but the pilots were calmly confident. Penn State, UCLA, and Florida State players snapped photos with the championship title at a pre-College Cup team banquet, but Portland players knew they would have their chance after the tournament.
In the final, it didn’t take long for the pilots to show that they were the best team in the country.
Just 90 seconds later, Megan Rapinoe found Angie Woznuk wide open in the penalty area for the first goal. It was the first goal UCLA allowed in the entire NCAA tournament, and the router was on. Going into her final college game after a goalless streak of three games, Sinclair added two more before halftime, and Rapinoe ended the game in the 77th minute when Portland won 4-0 and one of the best seasons in the world Women won college soccer history.
“What do you say after a game like that?” Smith said after the match. “The first thought crossed my mind was, ‘Clive, there’s # 2 for you.'”
The 2005 campaign was a storybook that ended Sinclair’s time in Portland and ended the year with an astonishing 39 goals, a record that continues to this day. Only Danielle Fotopoulos, who scored 118 goals at SMU and Florida in the late 1990s, has scored more NCAA goals than Sinclair’s 110.
Sinclair became the all-time leading goalscorer in international football history – men or women – with 186 points. While players like Mia Hamm, Marta and Abby Wambach often get more headlines, it’s hard to argue that Sinclair is the all-time top scorer.
Rapinoe played two more full seasons in Portland (she missed most of 2007 with an ACL injury) before graduating in 2008, but never reached the same heights without her runner-up Sinclair. She finished the 2005 campaign with 15 goals and 13 assists, including seven game winners. (Even in college, Pinoe Clutch was, though Sinc was even more with 11 game winners.)
Like Sinclair, Rapinoe has had an outstanding career in the national team that will be expanded with a view to the Summer Olympics. Rapinoe won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics and the 2015 and 2019 Women’s World Championships. She cemented her legendary status in France in 2019 when she won both the Golden Shoe and the Golden Ball as top scorer and best player in the Women’s World Cup won before winning the 2019 Ballon d’Or while battling a U.S. President on Twitter.
But it wasn’t just Sinclair and Rapinoe for the pilots. Natalie Budge, Lindsey Huie and Angie Woznuk were all enormously important offensively and provided 11, 14 and nine assists respectively. Alexander was almost unbeatable between the sticks, allowing only eight goals in the entire season. And it was a group of young people playing for the legacy of their former mentor, Clive Charles.
So stacked some of the legendary Anson Dorrance teams in North Carolina over the decades, it must be argued that the 2005 Portland Pilots were the best college soccer team ever. They didn’t have the massive history and prestige of tar heels, nor the huge sports budget of Notre Dame, UCLA, or Stanford. But they had Christine Sinclair and Megan Rapinoe, two players who continue to prove why they’re two of the best to ever play the game.