Opening Day, Thorns vs Red Stars, 06.02.19

PORTLAND, Ore. – Two years between games at Providence Park spanned lifetimes for Simone Charley. Back then, in 2017, the then-Vanderbilt Commodore was on the bench for the United States’ U-23 national team, playing in the Thorns’ Preseason Invitational, seeing zero minutes in front of a crowd of 6,129.

“The field was packed out,” Charley remembers. For the Thorns, over six thousand fans is just a preseason game. For much of women’s soccer, it’s a crowd.

“I was on the bench the whole game, and I remember just staring, thinking, ‘Whoa, look at all these fans,’” she says “’Look at all these people. This is so cool.’”

Twenty-six months later, Charley was in uniform for the second time at Providence Park, only this time, she was a professional, competitive match’s defining force. Setting up two first half goals and working in tandem with Midge Purce to devastate the Chicago Red Stars’ back line, the Portland Thorns FC forward, who spent last season training as an unsigned player, made her full Rose City debut an unforgettable one, helping lead her team to a 3-0 win in their 2019 home debut.

“It was a little different, this time,” she said, smiling. “Obviously, I was on the field this time, trying to take it in. I was just feeling that energy.”

Gabby Seiler was in the same position. Two years ago, she shared that Providence Park bench with Charley, as did Thorns backup keeper Bella Bixby, née Geist. On Sunday, the University of Florida alum went the full 90 minute in left-center defense to help her team preserve its shutout.

“I was talking to my mom about it today, and I was like, ‘I feel like this is everything I’ve ever dreamed of since I was little,” she says, explaining her second game at Providence Park “doesn’t even compare” to the first. “I always wanted to play professional soccer. To play here is another level.”

In an obvious way, “another level” is literal. This was the first time the Thorns had played in the renovated Providence Park, with an imposing, three-story stand rising on the east side where the city’s skyline was once in view.  The 19,461 who came for the year’s home debut marked the largest opening-game crowd in Thorns history.

From field level, the impact was obvious, too. The north end’s Rose City Riveters have become the standard for women’s professional soccer support, but buoyed by anticipation after a six-game wait (those first games of the season played on the road) and the $85-million renovation, Thorns fans produced an atmosphere may only be rivaled by that before last season’s NWSL final. From the message on the game’s pre-match tifo (“Welcome Back to Madness”) to the reaction to Purce’s 27th- and 31st-minute goals, the idea of Providence Park as a women’s soccer cathedral has been furthered by the Thorns new, expanded grounds.

Sunday’s was the result the Timbers – Thorns FC’s Major League Soccer brethren – were hoping for last night, but even that comparison lacks the proper scope. In seeing the day’s celebration play out, and remembering what most of the women’s soccer world is like outside of Portland, a broader perspective emerges. Sunday wasn’t just a landmark day for the Thorns. It was another day to appreciate what the Thorns have become.

“There’s no chance any club in the world is like this,” Meghan Klingenberg says, after the match. Klingenberg has played at the University of North Carolina, spent time overseas in Sweden, represented her country in Olympics and World Cups, and made U.S. stops in Boston, Houston, then Portland. At 30 years old, she has more perspective than most.

“I am really excited about certain games in other leagues getting high attendance,” she concedes, “but at the same time, this is a culture. It’s not a game here, a game there. It is a community coming together to root for a team that they genuinely care for and love.

“They know that we never give up, we work hard, and we work together, and we’re a great representation of the city. It’s basically all these people working together to be a part of that. You don’t get that anywhere else in the world.”

For Klingenberg, that feeling isn’t just unique to women’s soccer. It’s unique to the entire sport:

“As the men’s side gets better and bigger, they have international fans coming into Barcelona that don’t know any of the cheers. They have people who have never been to a game before sitting in the stands and being quiet.

“We don’t have that here. We have a genuine supporter’s culture that is unrivaled in women’s soccer, but it’s also one of the unique places to play in general in the world.”

Dagny Brynjarsdóttir has played in the Frauen Bundesliga, as well as in leagues in her home country, Iceland. She’s been part of qualifying campaigns for World Cups and European Championships, in addition to having spent two-plus seasons in the NWSL. Amid all those travels, Providence Park is, to her, “definitely the best place ever to play in.”

“I really hope that, in the future, this is how women’s soccer is going to be everywhere,” she says. “Because women’s football deserves it.”

We can only hope. While few have been able to adequately explain why exactly women’s soccer has been so much more successful in Portland than it’s been elsewhere in the U.S., that success implies a promise. If Portland can do it, then some other city, somewhere, will start putting their own formula together. What the culture around Thorns FC has built may, in 2019, be unique, but it may also be part of the future.

“I wish every little girl, even in Iceland, can come here and experience this,” Bryjarsdóttir says. “That’s what I want, one day.”

Portland is lucky. For us, “one day” is the present, and while there are still thousands of fans around the Rose City who’ve yet to discover the Thorns, one of the most unique stories in sport is unfolding at Providence Park, waiting for them whenever they want a part.

“You could play for 100 teams, and you would keep coming back to this stadium, and this city,” goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom said. “[Sunday] was something special that will stick with me. There’s no words. Everyone has said it already. This place is electric, and we get our energy from it.”