Biggest story will be in the stands as Thorns FC begin Challenge Cup

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You hear the metaphor “ramp up” a lot in sports. When a player is returning from an injury, they ramp up for that return. If a big game is coming, you need a physical, emotional and tactical ramping up. And when a new season or tournament approaches, well, that’s when you hear about these ramps the most.

The phrase is supposed to evoke a steady build. It’s controlled. It’s smooth. There aren’t abrupt levels, like a set of stairs, and it isn’t a mountain climb, where the mountain doesn’t care about what you want. When a team is ramping up for a season, they know where their endpoint lies, they can define their own process, allowing them to dictate the rise and pace of approach. People focus on the ramps because they help define the ramps. We chose how we’re ramping up.

For the first time in the (now) nine years of National Women’s Soccer League play, 2021 is giving teams a chance to ramp up twice. Tonight at Providence Park, the Portland Thorns will begin their 2021 season, though it won’t the NWSL’s regular season. The league’s Challenge Cup, after debuting to great success last summer, returns for a second edition this spring, serving as a tournament before the tournament over the next month. The Thorns will host their tournament opener tonight against the new Kansas City team, KC NWSL (7:30 p.m. PT, Paramount+).

“The nine-week preseason, I think [it was] absolutely perfect for us to continue our development but also preparing for this game,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said on Wednesday. “We’ve been able to prepare and push everyone. We’ve been able to see every type of picture. I can’t wait to see our group get out on Friday night.”

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Like most of the league’s other nine teams, the Thorns are going to be without significant players to open Challenge Cup. The league is beginning the tournament during a FIFA window for national-team play, and while internationals like Costa Rica’s Raquel Rodríguez and Finland’s Natalia Kuikka will at Providence Park tonight, five other Thorns will not: the four players called up by the United States (Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Becky Sauerbrunn, Sophia Smith), as well as the team’s captain, Canadian international Christine Sinclair. For some teams, half of Challenge Cup’s initial, four-game divisional round will be played without key components.

“It’s normal,” Parsons said of the absences, last week. “The chaos is normal …

“Going through this for eight, nine years now, despite knowing what’s coming and how it’s going to come, it’s still a challenge. For me, it’s about managing and trying to support and take care of the player, of the mindset. Because there’s always change when this happens.”

Though Parsons is used these circumstances, Challenge Cup is not, leaving this tournament is an undefined space. The first time it was waged, a number of players didn’t participate, but each team went to Utah knowing what their teams were going to be for the entire tournament. There were no late arrivals, and for all anybody knew, Challenge Cup games were the only ones teams would have in 2020. Fall Series wasn’t a real consideration at the time, whereas now a regular season awaits. The context of Challenge Cup is both completely different and, as we see how teams will approach it, still evolving.

But no matter how that context evolves, the biggest story at Challenge Cup’s onset will take place next to the fields. For the first time since the end of the 2019 season, the Thorns will have fans in their stands, undertaking a process other teams will share in, too. COVID-19 measures are changing across the country, and for Oregon’s part, outdoor venues are now allowed to welcome people back at 25 percent capacity. Around 6,000 tickets were available for Kansas City’s visit to Providence Park.

“This is something I’ve been waiting for since last year,” Rodríguez said. She was traded to and signed by the Thorns prior to the 2020 season. She has never played in front of fans at Providence Park.

“Of course, being a new Thorny, [playing in front of fans] is something I look forward to. The fact that we’ve had to wait longer than usual, it just makes it that much more special.”

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If you’re like me, there was a part of you that was curious about fanless games. At least, last year there was. Having the spectacle stripped down to its core — and having that done at a level that isn’t your local park or high school — is something I’d never experienced. I didn’t know what to expect. But with that curiosity came something more philosophical: What are these games supposed to be about?

When leagues announced there’d play games without fans, people asked if it was worth it. We certainly found a lot of value in soccer’s return. But we also saw the presence of the people in attendance was, as people had argued before, definitional. Nobody grows up dreaming of performing for empty stands, just as few fans, remote or local, become attached by teams playing in empty venues. At the NWSL’s level, the sport is about the players and their competition, but it’s also about what they’re playing for — or, in this case, who.

In the NWSL, Major League Soccer, and across every sport we love, we saw exactly how important the presence of fans has become. Spiritually, monetarily and as has been felt acutely in their absence, emotionally, fans drive high-level sports. Leagues like the NWSL could not go on much longer without them. What we saw over the last year was only a way of getting from one point to another.

Friday is not that other point yet. It’s a stop along the way, but it’s an important one, and it’s long-awaited. As we continue our progress toward normal, it’s important to remember how it felt to do the things we love. As we’re careful over these next months, it’s important to remember what comes from that care. We’re working for a world where we can have 25,218 people together over the space of a city block to watch soccer. We’re working to reclaim what we’ve lost.

That’s the true ramping up we’ll see come 7:30 p.m. While the Thorns keep building into their season, and Kansas City builds further into their new existence, fans will start returning to the role sport has missed for so long. Fans will start ramping up to when these games will be normal.

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