Celebration shot, Thorns vs Dash, 07.24.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Record crowd sees Thorns' latest advertisement for NWSL soccer

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Thoughts of Portland Thorns FC's previous home game will be far from fans' minds after Wednesday night's match, one which drew a club-record 22,329 fans to Providence Park for the return of the team's United States internationals. But it was only 10 days ago that Tyler Lussi, in the final moments against the visiting Orlando Pride, gave supporters one of the most memorable moments in club history. Her 94th-minute goal with the last touch of the game (save the following kickoff) not only delivered a 4-3 victory. It instantly became one of the three or four most dramatic goals in Thorns history.

And yet after Wednesday night, it feels like a distant memory, though it's impossible to identify which moment from Portland's victory over the Houston Dash could, on its own, usurp it. Was it the totality of the 5-0 victory that we'll remember most, or was it the fact that the team scored four of those goals in the first half-hour? Was it Houston's response with two -- TWO! -- substitutes immediately after, or was it the Lindsey Horan bicycle kick that thundered off the crossbar before intermission?

Was it the chances for Tobin Heath and Midge Purce which, barely missing the goal or deterred by Houston's Jane Campbell, could have made the first half more disastrous for the Dash? Or was it the early goal from Horan, the brace that followed from Hayley Raso, or the penalty converted by Christine Sinclair -- all before Lussi, with the help of Campbell, closed the scoring in the second half? Add in the record crowd and the returns of World Cup winners Heath, Horan, Adrianna Franch and Emily Sonnett, and it feels rude to single out only one moment.

"Twenty-two thousand (fans) on a Wednesday night is pretty good," Heath said, playing up the understatement while soaking in memories from the Thorns' expanded home. "We come to expect (that crowd), but this was my first time in the renovated stadium, and it just felt so good to be home. We all showed that, and especially for 15 minutes, it was so great to have my teammates' back and to have the fans' back. It's always a special feeling, being here."

This was one of the most memorable nights the Thorns have had in Providence Park, though not because any particular moment stood out. It was memorable because everything stood out, from the opening moments when the World Cup players were honored to the final rose ceremony which, as has become tradition, ended with a cheer led by head coach Mark Parsons' daughter, Edie. It was memorable because no scene can be elevated without somebody mentioning another. In that way, the whole night become a single moment to remember - an evening where everything imaginable came together for Thorns culture.

"The players that were coming back in, the talent that was coming back in, their first home game, being here and for us," Parsons said, listing off factors that contributed to the lopsided result. "We came off a performance in Utah (a 2-2 draw five days earlier) that we obviously were disappointed with …

"When you come off of a game like that, any group is going to have the motivation. But for us, you throw in motivation, you throw in home crowd, you throw in record crowd, you throw in talent and their first game (in the new Providence Park), it's a recipe for disaster for someone visiting."

The context of that "disaster" can't be ignored. The Orlando game may have been on national television, but even with games that are streamed on Yahoo! Sports, there are hearts to be won. That's why the spectacle last Friday at Utah was more valuable than the lessons taken from the field. The misgivings of that draw were secondary to a product which, for those giving the NWSL their time in the wake of the World Cup, continued to put the league's best foot forward.

In a much different way, Wednesday did the same, and while it didn't show the type of competitiveness we're used to seeing from the NWSL's matchups, it showed what the heights league can produce. Horan's left-footage finish to open the scoring. Heath's exquisite cross to give Raso an empty net. Purce exploding into the 18-yard box to draw the penalty Sinclair converted, then setting up Raso for her second score. To see the Thorns flatten a team with Houston's talents would force any open-minded cynic to acknowledge what the league can offer, ask how often the NWSL provides these performances, and come back to see when the next display of dominance was offered.

"We have such a great understanding of each other," Heath said, "but it's figuring out what kind of team we want to be, especially this second half of the season. 

"It's almost like we started again, you know? The players did so fantastically well when we were gone, and it's something to be so proud of. That's Thorns soccer. So (it's) for us to pick up and go forward and fight for another championship."

Portland's not the only team capable of producing these results. The North Carolina Courage do so, too. And in Chicago icon Sam Kerr, the Red Stars have a player who can overwhelm any matchup. Five-goal games are still rare, though, let alone five-goal margins, but in the quality the Thorns displayed while producing those numbers, Portland showed a feature, not bug, of the NWSL.

This is the level that teams will be pushing each other to over the season's final months. As was shown last year, the playoffs will arrive with four of the most talented teams in the world facing off with little separation. Just like on Wednesday, margins can be pounced on, exploited, and made into lopsided outcomes, but the underlying talent on each side demands the blowouts be appreciated as accomplishments of their own.

"I felt for Houston," Parsons conceded. "It was obviously tough travel on a short rest, for them. They caught a group of players playing just inspiring stuff, electric stuff."

Over the next 10 days, the Thorns will bask in their achievement, having put three straight unsatisfying performances behind them with one of the most dominant displays of the season. They'll do so from first place, for now, having forged a four-point gap on the rest of the circuit, with a goal difference that's now near North Carolina's. They lead the league in goals, have played four more games on the road than at home, and have, in Wednesday's performance, an exemplar of what they can do, when locked in.

"We've not as bad as (we) looked in the second half," at Utah, Parsons said. But "we're not as good as that looked, tonight. We're right in the middle. 

"We've got to stay focused. We've got to keep growing. But the way this group wants to work together right now, I think good things are ahead."

Perhaps most importantly, the Thorns have given over 22,000 Portlanders a reason to come back to the park. Undoubtedly, some will focus on what the Dash didn't do, but with celebrations from a record crowd defining the game's first 30 minutes, more ticket holders will remember the positives. They'll remember names they came to see -- the Horans, Heaths, Sinclairs of the team -- producing, as advertised. They'll remember the Riveters creating the best fan experience in women's soccer. They'll remember a team that gave new eyes the impression of something imperious.

They'll remember one of the best nights the Thorns have ever produced: a two-hour moment that may prove one of the most "had to be there" scenes in Portland soccer.

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