Becky Sauerbrunn still adamantly believes the penalty decision which led to Portland’s first-ever NWSL goal should not have been awarded.
66 minutes into the league's first-ever game, which pitted the Thorns and FC Kansas City against one another, Allie Long slipped a through ball into the path of Danielle Foxhoven who was taken down in the box by Lauren Sesselmann.
With Christine Sinclair stepping to the spot and converting the ensuing penalty kick, the foul ultimately made the difference in what was a 1-1 draw back in April 2013. However, the bigger takeaway from that afternoon is what the match represented: the beginning of another attempt at a professional women’s soccer league in the United States.
Nearly a decade after that inaugural match, the Thorns are set to kick off their tenth regular season on Saturday, once again against Kansas City (3pm PT, TICKETS, Twitch). On Friday, Sauerbrunn reflected on playing in that game and discussed just how much the league has grown in the years since.
“I remember thinking ‘so this is what women’s professional soccer is supposed to look like,’” Sauerbrunn said. “Ten years later you’re looking at all these amazing stadiums like in Portland and you’re going to Red Bull Arena. To see how far we’ve gone since that first game is crazy.”
It’s easy to track the big-picture changes in the league since that first game. Sauerbrunn, who now plays for the Thorns, anchored FCKC’s backline. Alex Morgan, Kathryn Williamson and Long dotted the Thorns’ lineup that day, while Karina LeBlanc – now the club’s general manager – started in goal for Portland.
In 2013, 6,784 fans made their way to Shawnee Mission District Stadium in Overland Park, Kansas, to attend the match. Ten seasons later, that same matchup will be played at Providence Park in front of a crowd that routinely tops 15,000 fans.
When tracing the league’s growth, there may be no better example than Portland’s first opponent this regular season: the Kansas City Current. Despite winning two early NWSL titles under current U.S. Women’s National Team coach Vlatko Andonovski, the franchise struggled to develop stability, practicing and playing in several different venues early in its history.
In 2017, the club left Kansas City for Salt Lake City, Utah, where it played as the Utah Royals FC. Three seasons later, the club returned to the Midwest under a new ownership group that continues to invest in the club, city and league. Now, rebranded from FCKC to the Current, the club has a new stadium on the way and currently plays at Children’s Mercy Park.
“I love Kansas City and I’m so glad I got to play there for as long as I did,” Sauerbrunn said. “To see that they now have the investment that we wish we had early in the NWSL, it really makes my heart happy. They have the funding, investment, support and all the things that we wanted earlier on.”
Portland, meanwhile, has been pushing the envelope since that April afternoon. The club’s average attendance has exponentially grown, and it has brought in several international signings, from Amandine Henry to Hina Sugita.
The growth at a league level is also apparent. NWSL games are broadcasted over CBS and Paramount+, a far cry from when most games were either streamed over YouTube or Go90. There’s now a player’s union and collective bargaining agreement, which gives players more of a say over working conditions and payments.
“What you see on the field is what the fans are going to believe in,” Sauerbrunn said. “If you’re putting players on a first-class field, [fans] will see that, appreciate it and think of us as first-class players. It’s good to see those strides and feel like a professional athlete.”
A smaller, albeit equally as noticeable change among players has been the increase of full-time technical staff members. While having one staff member wear many hats was once common, there are now a greater number of people significantly dedicated to work with NWSL teams.
Another improvement came in league coverage. With more people watching the sport, there has been a subtle shift in how the league has been covered. While not perfect, Sauerbrunn believes that it is much better than it used to be.
“The critiques we receive are more from soccer people, so we’re actually talking about tactics,” Sauerbrunn said. “It’s not just ‘oh, those uniforms look really nice out there.’ I feel like there are more eyeballs on the game and more fans, therefore we are getting more journalists and criticism, which we have asked for.”
When she thinks back to that first game in 2013, Sauerbrunn can’t help but laugh as memories flood back. She recalls how players were thrown off that day by the lacrosse and football lines etched across the high school stadium’s field. She also still has her jersey from the day. Not the one she wore, but the first one she was given that read “Saverbrunn,” not “Sauerbrunn” across the back.
After reflecting on the past, Sauerbrunn thought about the league’s future. She hopes that there will eventually be a Concacaf Women’s Champions League and that teams will someday participate in oversea tours. She also thinks a potential all-star game between the NWSL’s best players and a foreign club, such as Lyon or Barcelona, would be cool. Most importantly, Sauerbrunn’s wish is that the number of dedicated, full-time technical staff members, as well as player salaries, continues to increase.
The NWSL still has plenty of room to develop, nobody disputes that, but there has undoubtedly been growth between April 2013 and April 2022. On Saturday, 10 seasons after both teams played to a one-all draw at a high school stadium in suburban Kansas, that growth will be on full display.
“It’s nice to see that people are willing to invest in us and have it be marketable,” Sauerbrunn said. “It’s not a charity anymore and I think that mindset has gone away. That it’s women’s soccer, charitable and you’ll lose your money. That’s not true anymore. If you put investment in, you’ll see a return on that investment.”