PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Thorns FC came good on their home debut, dominating Cascadia neighbors Seattle Reign FC during a 2-1 win Saturday afternoon. Goals from Marian Dougherty and Alex Morgan gave the home team their first NWSL victory, but amid the post-match reflections the same, transcending theme kept emerging: The atmosphere made the match.
An NWSL record 16,479 people came out to what’s normally the Portland Timbers’ home field, and while record attendance in a two-week old league deserves a skeptical context, broader descriptions prove even more laudatory of the Portland’s support.
Saturday’s crowd out-drew any match from the three years of Women’s Professional Soccer, the professional league that preceded the NWSL. You have to go back to the Women’s United Soccer Association to find a women’s professional match that drew more people, and while a handful of crowds in WUSA bested the Thorns’ support, it’s been 10 years since that league played its final game.
“This was awesome,” was Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone’s reaction after her first professional victory. A veteran of 158 caps during her time with the U.S. Women’s National Team, Parlow Cone has perspective on big games, experience that came in handy while trying to describe Sunday’s environment.
“I was walking around the field with Rachel Buehler and we looked at each other and she’s like, ‘This is like the World Cup.’ That’s what it felt like … It was an unbelievable atmosphere.”
Packed into seats normally occupied by the Timbers’ Army, the Rose City Riveters were able to replicate most of the environment that makes JELD-WEN Field one of the more notable destinations in MLS. The crowd was noticeably different – a bit smaller, and more skewed toward a family demographic that’s stronger in the women’s game – but outdrawing the combined attendance for the league’s four opening weekend matches, Portland still created a landmark event.
“Over the past few weeks we’ve heard about the number of tickets being sold, but I don’t think any of us expected that,” Thorns captain Christine Sinclair said after the match. “It was just incredible.”
The numbers alone were impressive, but for the few international stars on the field – U.S. internationals Alex Morgan and Rachel Buehler, in particular – they’re numbers they’d see multiple times each year playing for their national team. What made Sunday different was the type (and depth) of supporter culture that’s been hard to come by in the women’s game.
“It was a great Portland vibe,” was how Morgan described it. “We weren’t sure what to expect, but right from when we went out (for) warmups until game time, you hear the fans loud. I think every team that comes to Portland will not want to play us because they will be intimidated by the atmosphere.”
Sinclair echoed the sentiment. If the Rose City Riveters can replicate Sunday’s performance, Thorns FC will have a distinct home field advantage.
“This is going to be the only city that gets this type of crowd,” Sinclair explained. “When you haven’t been here before, it can be intimidating. Hopefully you can punish teams in the first half before they get used to it.”
On Sunday, Thorns FC took their first lead of the season, a late first half goal that did the punishing Sinclair described. With momentum coming out of halftime, Portland put the game away with an early second half goal.
If that becomes a formula for success, the value of Portland’s crowd will transcend these opening day headlines. It will become something that matters on the field.