There were no fans. The east-side seats were covered in banners displaying sponsor logos and reminding viewers to vote. Supporters group the Rose City Riveters filled screens on a Google Meet instead of filling the North End, where their banners hung nonetheless. Each team had both a Smith and a Rodriguez, while led to some surreal play-by-play calls from the very Canadian-accented commentator (onetime Thorn and Canada national team member Kaylyn Kyle). The Portland Thorns’ first game of four in the National Women’s Soccer League’s Fall Series, part two of this abbreviated, fanless 2020 “season,” was weird. But weird in a lot of good ways.
The victory featured second goals on the year from Simone Charley, who zigzagged through defenders like a hockey forward doing crossovers to score in the 35th minute, and Lindsey Horan, who capitalized on a goalkeeper goof to knock the ball in in the 81st minute. (Both also scored in the summer’s NWSL Challenge Cup, in which Portland notched the worst record in the seeding games and then promptly took out top seed North Carolina in the quarterfinals before losing in the semis to eventual champs the Houston Dash.) In between, Portland fans saw the professional debut of 2020 no. 1 draft pick Sophia Smith and then, not three minutes after she came into the game, her first professional goal.
Between trades, draft picks, injuries, opt-outs, loans, and signings with other teams, the Thorns’ roster has been shifting all year. “We never played the same team twice, could never go, ‘All right, that back line works, let’s keep it,’” head coach Mark Parsons said in a press conference earlier this month, about the lineups he used in the Challenge Cup. After Sunday’s game, Parsons said, “We didn’t have much time with a new group of new players [leading up to the Challenge Cup]. Today I think you saw a group that’s taken another small step forward.” He also nodded to the “tough week” of training indoors due to the wildfires, noting it wasn’t actually tough in comparison to what others have gone through: “Thinking of the towns and the homes and the families that have been affected by the wildfires, and for us just the privilege of being outside and being in this stadium ... was good.”
While the smoke in the city had mostly cleared, other kinds of upheaval off the pitch were felt during the Sunday afternoon game. Following a statement posted on Twitter earlier in the day by the Royals players declaring they’ve had “enough of racist systems” and are ready for “setting the standard with a new beginning,” the game stream on Twitch.tv was also the announcement that the Royals head coach and an assistant coach have been placed on leave. Interim head coach Amy LePeilbet, an assistant coach who has been in charge of the Utah Royals FC Reserves, became the first former NWSL player to serve as a head coach in an NWSL game.
Before the game the teams emerged onto the field in black T-shirts, the Royals’ all declaring Black Lives Matter and the 21 Thorns’ shirts spelling out “I am Breonna Taylor. I am Breonna Taylor. I am Breonna Taylor. 192 days ago Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, was fatally shot by police officers of the Louisville Metro Police Department. There has not been an arrest of her killers. #SayHerName. Please vote.”
In the NWSL Fall Series, the league’s nine teams are divided into three-team pods to minimize travel. While major league teams in the Pacific Northwest normally carry the country’s largest travel burden for away games, the western pod of the Thorns, the Sale Lake City–based Royals, and the Seattle-ish OL Reign involves the fewest miles between teams.
Next: The Thorns host OL Reign at 7 p.m. Wednesday, September 30; visit Utah for a game at 7 p.m. Saturday, October 3; and head north to play the Reign at 5 p.m. Saturday, October 10.