The Portland Thorns played their last home game for 2015 to a sold-out arena.
Two hours before a Thorn’s or Timber’s game, the national anthem is rehearsed at Providence Park. I live three blocks from the field, perched just above it I can hear the singer’s voice lifting from the bowl of the stadium, joining the max train whistle in the otherwise pre-game quiet of Goose Hollow. A little while after the rehearsal on game days this summer, the next five hours invariably looked like this: the five blocks around the stadium become flooded with green and red, scalpers’ shouts, and traffic. Little girls and boys balance on the curbs outside the dive bars and fast food joints on W. Burnside as they walk in groups to the field. Couples holding hands have a platonic look about them, wearing the same team attire. Mazatlan, the Mexican place with outdoor seating, is packed. Cigarettes and soccer scarves make the bearded fans clogging the sidewalk outside Marathon tavern look older and rugged, like an old image pulled from a street in London.
On Sunday night, the Thorns played their last home game of the season and the scene played out as usual. I was among the tide, going to the game instead of spying on the sliver of stadium seating I can see from my window, guessing at the catalysts for the louder cheers or boos. I was awash in the red sea, a Thorn, and it was their second sold out house of the season.
I hadn’t been to the field since I played on it for two days in March, during open try-outs. And although it was my first game of the season, it felt familiar to be there. Maybe it was the experience of the tryout, having a short-lived intimacy with the place or the process of writing a story about it for this magazine, revisiting the green turf every day in my mind for two weeks.
So the thrill of being there came not from the spectacle of the game but being a part of the ever-growing congregation of women’s soccer fans. On the inside, I watched how the busy street scene quickly became the seated, attentive crowd. The little kids are not sidewalk hazards inside, but enrapt, wide-eyed oglers, holding up signs and asking their Dads, “where is number 13?”
Alex Morgan is number 13, the 26-year-old whose clutch goals helped win the women’s national team a World Cup, and has made her internationally famous. Seeing her in person clarified the undeniable celebrity presence she has. She’s productive and aggressive, and pretty. Young girls, who care as much about their left foot kicks as they do how their pony tails look, are drawn to her mystique. I think in some way everyone is.
Tobin Heath covered the field Sunday evening like the rain that fell earlier that day. At times, and for minutes on end, she is everywhere the ball is. Or, she arrives in spurts for the assist, or to derail an opponents’ surge. Midfielder Kaylyn Kyle is the same way. Her blonde hair, almost as bright as a yellow card, is barely contained in a ponytail after just minutes of play. She reminds me of the girls I played with as a kid, their strategies being to employ every part of the body to stop the ball and to chase down anyone that gets past– their hair, too, ended up falling out of hair ties and into their faces. At a distance this looks chaotic and unintentional but Kyle’s defense shadows the offender, interrupting their moves like a relentless fly.
The last game was a good one, although it ended in a draw, it was what any soccer fan would want. Six goals were scored, most of them coming in the second half. Crystal Dunn on the Washington Spirit was tireless, breaking away frequently from midfield to charge towards the goal with the ball, enjoying half the field to herself save for one or two defenders. Her wings eventually catch up and she often finds them with a simple lead-in pass. She is the opponent you can’t help but cheer for, her determination is worn like the sweat on her body. You want her to succeed and it reminds you that you’re a soccer fan first, and loyal to a team second.
Sitting up in section 210, general admission 10 dollar seats, gives you an aerial view of the field. You’re on a bench, free to slide around as people spread out up here. It’s not like you can’t see the intricacies of the game. Tobin Heath’s second-half fancy footwork in the lower corner of the 18-yard box left me in awe for it’s cool trickery, creating a cross opportunity for herself.
Sitting this high up has you watching the crowd as much as the game. The atmosphere is more subdued than a Timber’s game, like less beer is being had and more people are focused on watching the game. The fans in the seats behind the north goal on Sunday chanted and sang with enthusiasm, led by fan organization, the Rose City Riveters, but where the Timber army’s cheers come in waves, erupting at times to a deafening pitch, the Thorns’ crowd maintains a constant buzz and doesn’t react as loudly to a perceived bad call on the part of the ref.
We’re all on our feet when a Thorn scores, watching the celebration through a cloud of pink smoke and flapping soccer flags. And at the end of the game, after the team did their rounds waving to the crowd from the field, the line-up of Thorns joined the Rose City Riveters in the stands, sending us off until next year with applause and a celebration that matched the one we gave them.
Two players retired that night as well. They are Nadine Angerer (#1) and Rachel Van Hollebeke (#16). May their future be as bright as their past.