Consider Friday’s opening game your answer as to whether the hosts are feeling this World Cup. Three goals in the first 45 minutes, with some low-grade controversy keeping a fourth, rejected by VAR, from staying on the board. There may have no better way for France to say “we’re ready for our” admittedly long-awaited “major-tournament breakthrough” than Eugénie Le Sommer putting Les Bleues up within 10 minutes, then Wendie Renard towering over a brace at intermission.
There was a message for Thorns fans even before this year’s tournament kicked off, though – in the moments before the first whistle, as banners were being exchanged and hands shaken between captains and officials. When the camera captured the player who was wearing the armband for France, it was impossible to, from a Thorns perspective, avoid a moment’s reflection. That’s Amandine Henry. She used to play here. She’s helped bring the club a title.
True to each memory “Mandy” carried with her victory in the 2017 NWSL final, Henry made the moment even more poignant. Cutting in on her right foot just beyond Korea’s penalty box in the 85th minute, France's captain curled an unstoppable shot into the right side of Kim Minjung’s goal, capping a 4-0 victory that turned Megan Rapinoe’s prognostications from sage to fearsome.
That Henry is captaining France is no more surprising than her rising to tense moments. She took over the team’s captaincy from Renard a short time ago. The fact that there is such a prominent NWSL connection with the host nation, one of the tournament’s favorites, is worth a moment’s pause, though. Our domestic league has become a fixture in our soccer lives, but it is still only seven years old, and although American talent forms the league’s backbone, the impact a young league will have on this year’s competition goes far beyond the United States’ squad.
Henry was today’s example – an apt one, given she’s among the best midfielders in the world. But she’s not the only States-based talent set to star. Australia’s best players all have NWSL presences, chief among them being Caitlin Foord, Alanna Kennedy and this writer’s World’s Best Player choice, Sam Kerr. The best player on each of Brazil’s (Marta) and Canada’s (Christine Sinclair) national teams calls the league home, too, while seven other nations have at least one player who plays club soccer in the NWSL.
Given the rich history of women’s soccer in the U.S., some may see this as a low bar. “U.S. league has presence at Cup. Big deal.” But for those of us who’ve lived through part of that history, we know how hard it’s been for a professional women’s league to take hold. A league folded in the wake of a World Cup eight years ago. We’re living through Pro League Try Three, now, and that’s a conservative count. To have one of those tries survive seven years – to reach a second World Cup! – is uncharted waters.
Feel free to stop. Take note. Appreciate the tenure while recognizing the challenges. You’re where no other fan of a U.S. pro league has been before.
That feeling goes for Thorns fans, too. People outside Portland get tired of the Thorns FC narrative being used to bludgeon the rest of the world, and yeah, told the wrong way, it can be a little bit tiresome. While it’s great to see places like The Guardian continuing to cover the game around the world, it’s also understandable why a fan in North Carolina, Chicago or Puget Sound read those pieces and, without taking anything away from Portland, think, “OK. We get it, already. Portland’s pretty cool.”
Part of that pretty cool, though, is having a player like Nadine Angerer, four years ago, representing the Rose City for Germany while still performing like one of the better goalkeepers in the world. It comes from Christine Sinclair, one of the most important people in Portland soccer history, captaining Canada for the second time at a World Cup as a Thorn, just as it will come from the seven other Thorns who, over the course of the next four days, will stand for their anthems while having a tie to Portland.
No other NWSL team has that. Nine players in France? That’s tied for the NWSL’s high mark, but in the image of Henry shaking hands with the Korea Republic’s Cho Sohyun before the first whistle, Portland fans got a reminder of their club’s scope. Sure, there’s huge Portland presence with the United States, and for many fans in the Rose City, that’s where their allegiances will lie. But the Thorns impact will be felt this summer at the upper ends of squads from Australia, Canada and France, too, just as it will be touched on in Brazil’s.
That statement wasn’t as loud as France’s on Friday, and for most people watching the World Cup, it won’t be heard at all. That’s a good thing. No club team’s story should overshadow anything at a World Cup. But Portland fans watching the competition can still look at the little things, like Amandine Henry wearing the armband, scoring a goal, and feel a connection that goes beyond a final score. In more and more places, particularly as the NWSL continues to grow, you can see Portland’s connections to the women’s soccer world.