Come game’s end, nobody was talking about the crowd. But nobody was talking about the goals, either. Rocky Rodríguez’s opener. Tyler Lussi’s game-winner, eventually. Amy Rodriguez’s response. The aspects of soccer games we usually remember were relegated to subplots before Friday’s final whistle, with Portland Thorns FC and Kansas City NWSL finishing with only 19 players on the field. The Thorns had won their NWSL Challenge Cup opener, 2-1, but those in attendance at Providence Park were left wondering what Morgan Weaver, confronted by Kristen Edmonds in stoppage time, had done to earn her red card.
Morgan Weaver is innocent. pic.twitter.com/pBBmsigzds— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) April 10, 2021
It didn’t take long once the match ended for the main story to come back into focus. After the whistle, the Thorns congratulated the nearest opponent, huddled near the center circle for their standard post-game message, then resumed a tradition they hadn’t been able to execute since their last home game with fans at the end of the 2019 season. Walking across the center line to the stadium’s west side, the team began a procession around the edge of the field, waving their thanks to fans who, in limited capacity, were sprinkled through stands that were normally full. Across the vacant north end, to the east side then south, the Thorns ended the night with bows of gratitude, then the traditional awarding of roses to Rodríguez and Lussi for their goals.
Friday’s match wasn’t the scene players dream of when they think of Providence Park, but it’s the one they’ve wanted for over a year, now. For the first time since the world began battling the COVID-19 pandemic, there were fans in the stands in Goose Hollow, which meant there were fans of their support on the field.
”Emotions were high,” Meghan Klingenberg, the night’s captain, said after the game. “We have not had fans in a long time, as we all know. Was haven’t had a connection. Our community is very interconnected with this team, and it’s part of the fabric of this organization.
”Without them, it felt like our 12th person on the field wasn’t there. It felt like that 12th person was back tonight.”
A picture of the stands at match’s onset would have been a reminder of how far we have to go. As fans spent time in the concourses, getting drinks and food before kickoff, the available seats were slow to fill, briefly leaving those on the field to wonder what the atmosphere would be like when the game began. It didn’t take that long, though, to hear the united cheers, led by the north end, when players departed after warmups, and then when the national anthem ended with their roar. A stadium made cavernous by 2019’s eastside addition grabbed what sound there was and sent it ricocheting off empty seats, concrete walkways, and the Multnomah Athletic Club’s wall behind the south end scoreboard. In no way was Providence Park as loud as it’s been before, but after a year of near-silence, it was loud enough.
In moments like the confrontation between Weaver and Edmonds, you could feel the fans’ impact. As play moved away from the players’ skirmish, a response from the crowd told those following the ball that the real action was still at the other end of the field. But long before those extracurriculars, and even before Rodríguez and Lussi put the Thorns in front, you heard the fans elevate the mundane. Simone Charley’s dances on the ball, Adrianna Franch’s clutches on an early cross, Klingenberg bolting forward from her midfield role all brought joy, and noise. The fans had been waiting for this night, too.
“It’s something that I had been looking forward to since last year,” Rodríguez said, having join the team before the 2020 season. “I had to wait a little longer, but because of the wait, it just felt that much more special. I feel like I can hardly find the words to describe the support that I feel.
“We always felt the support of the fans through social media and whatnot, but there is nothing that can replace the physical presence. When our supporters start to cheer on at the end of the game, I feel like that’s a special connection between the team and the supporters, the fans. I’m just very grateful to be a Thorny.”
Perhaps moments like Madison Pogarch busting upfield for an unexpected, late attacking run aren’t what we typically think of as highlights, but when you add a soundtrack that’s been gone for so long, the small things became important. It’s easy to remember the thunderous bursts of supporters when a goal’s scored, or the songs deriding referees when calls don’t go the Thorns’ ways. But I’d forgotten how often fans cheer for things that would otherwise be unremarkable. A give-and-go between Klingenberg and Rodríguez. Marissa Everett accelerating toward space behind the defense. Charley flicking a ball past a defender while managing not to be held up. The small, ever-present joy at the Thorns’ efforts had gone unmentioned during the time Providence Park has not been itself, but on Friday, the small cheers were so valuable.
If things go well over the next few months, we should see another bump in capacity at Providence Park. And then maybe another after that, until one day games are back to normal, and life will be closer to normal. Until then, little steps will be important. The small moves, the increments, will be worth cheering for.