Saturday’s Portland Thorns FC match against the North Carolina Courage (12:30pm PT, Lifetime, TICKETS) marks an important milestone in the club’s history: it will be their 100th regular-season game played.
The Thorns were one of the inaugural teams of the National Women’s Soccer League in 2013 and have been part of a number of key league moments the last five years. They played in the league’s first-ever game against FC Kansas City, went on to win the 2013 NWSL Championship that year and more recently, earned the NWSL Shield in 2016 with a record of 12-3-5.
When the NWSL was founded in 2013, it was the third iteration of a professional women’s soccer league in the U.S. Women’s Professional Soccer (2007-2012) had folded the year before, and its predecessor, Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-2003) lasted three seasons. However, over the past five years, the NWSL and women’s soccer in Portland has flourished.
Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons, who’s been with Portland since 2016 and, before that, coached the Washington Spirit from 2013-2015, knows that the 100 games milestone is a big one.
“A lot of the best leagues in the world are built on history,” he said. “On the women’s side, the fact that there’s been three leagues [in the United States], there’s history of the women’s professional game, and now [that] we’re talking about 100 games for Portland Thorns and for other clubs, shows what we’ve all known the last few years: this league is here to stay.”
On April 21, 2013 the Thorns hosted Seattle Reign FC in their first-ever home opener at then-JELD-WEN Field. That night, Portland drew 16,479 fans, promptly eclipsing any single-game attendance mark from Women’s Professional Soccer. It was a memorable night for Thorns forward and captain Christine Sinclair who was one of the team’s original players.
“Obviously we knew that there were going to be quite a few fans at the game,” she said. “But to walk out in warmups and see the whole Rose City Riveters section filled up—it was just incredible.”
Sinclair, who scored the Thorns first-ever goal the previous week against FC Kansas City, recalled teammate Marian Dougherty’s goal—Thorns FC’s first at home—the national anthem and the atmosphere of the game, noting, “it was just one of those moments you’ll never forget.”
Supporter culture in Portland has remained vibrant at Providence Park over the past five years, as the Thorns have consistently drawn the most fans of any women’s professional soccer club in the world, averaging 16,945 fans in 2016. Portland’s average home attendance in 2016 ranked better than 12 English Championship teams, 10 Ligue 1 teams, 7 Serie A clubs and 5 La Liga sides home attendance numbers during their 2015-16 season in addition to 10 NBA and 10 NHL teams. In four seasons, Portland has averaged better than 14,815 fans per game, including four matches of more than 20,000 fans as well as three sellouts.
However, this strength in fan culture has not just been limited to Portland. Parsons has been especially impressed by the growth he’s seen around the league.
“In the last five years, I’ve seen the level on the field—the product on the field—just continue to grow from every single club, every single market,” he said. “Amazing fans continue to get involved and support their clubs with marked fan bases growing in almost every market. And not just the number of fans but their connection to their clubs.”
Sinclair agrees, and sees Portland’s 100 game milestone as one of significance to the league and her team.
“I think I’m just proud of the league, but obviously proud of our organization and obviously our fanbase and the sort of special atmosphere we’ve created here over the course of those hundred games,” she said. “Hopefully it’s just the start of bigger things to come.”