BY MIKE DONOVAN
PORTLAND, Ore.- For a town that proclaims itself as “Soccer City, USA,” the arrival of a professional women’s soccer team gave citizens here a chance to solidify Portland’s status as an epicenter of the sport in the country.
If Sunday’s home opener is any indication, Portland will continue to be known as a hotbed for soccer for a long time to come.
The stands were filled with both families and a supporters group that provided a constant soundtrack for the entire match. Fans wearing jerseys with “Morgan” and “Sinclair” on their backs came out in droves while the Rose City Riveters added tifo and chants being led by numerous capos.
It combined for an atmosphere that left an impression on coaches, retired and current players, and NWSL executives.
“This was awesome. It felt like that atmosphere that we had at the World Cup and that we had at the Olympics,” head coach Cindy Parlow Cone said. ”I thought we were spoiled tonight with the fans. It was a unbelieveable atmosphere. Atmospheres like this are why you want to be involved in the game and play in these type of games. This was an unbelievable experience for the girls and for me.”
The crowd of 16,479 is the largest of any women’s pro soccer game since the WUSA folded in 2003 and was one of the ten largest crowds to ever to see a women’s club match in the United States. A cold, overcast day in Portland had no effect on keeping fans away as they lined up in the hundreds at the gates, prior to the match. The Thorns were able to pull out a 2-1 victory and were able to reward the crowd for its effort.
Even the most prolific goal scorer in international soccer history couldn’t help but be impressed by the crowd.
“What an incredible atmosphere,” said Mia Hamm, who was teammates of Cone throughout their US National Team careers. “You’re just so excited for not just the Thorn players but for all the players who get to play in an environment like this. You have some players who have been able to play in World Cups and Olympics, but to have this environment in your own league is tremendous.”
Another World Cup and Olympic veteran believes that the fans will give the club a unique advantage over the league.
“I wouldn’t want to be the away team in this stadium,” Christine Sinclair said. “I think it can be intimidating for an away team especially in this league because this will be the only city that will get this type of crowd. And when you haven’t been here before it’s intimidating.”
While the fans are one thing, one other advantage that the Thorns have over other clubs in the NWSL is their affiliation with a MLS club. From a stadium with FIFA-rated turf to executives and staff that know how to run a professional soccer organization, in some aspects, Portland is in a different league than the seven other clubs in the league.
NWSL executive Director Cheryl Bailey, who was attending her third NWSL match in nine days, admits that the Thorns have some built-in advantages compared to other teams in the league.
“They’re really in good shape, I think they are one of the teams that has the infrastructure because they do have the connection to the Timbers. Their infrastructure is really, really good,” Bailey said. “I just think they are going to build upon what their platform is going forward.”
Despite the connection to the Timbers, the Thorns and their supporters are trying to give the club unique traditions of their own.
After each Timbers match, goalscorers receive a sliced-off segment of the Victory Log from Timber Joey. After today’s win, goalscorers Marian Dougherty and Alex Morgan received a bouquet of roses from the fans in the North End.
“Receiving the roses was awesome. I didn’t expect it. Being the Rose City, being the Portland Thorns, it something extra special that the fans did for us,” Morgan said.
Morgan’s goal came off a pass from Sinclair and gave the Thorns a two-goal advantage early in the second half. With the two prominent strikers on the squad, the Thorns figure to be a favorite as the inaugural NWSL season progresses.
The match was the first regular season professional women’s soccer game in the city, however, Portland hosted the WUSA All-Star Game in 2002 and has held numerous Women’s World Cup matches and international friendlies before. The Rose City is also home to the University of Portland, which has long been home to a diehard fan base that supports its women’s soccer team. In fact, UP has led women’s college soccer in attendance for seven consecutive seasons.
While the 16-thousand fans might not be the norm for the Thorns, it certainly goes a long way in helping the club and the city become a lasting fixture in women’s professional soccer.