Goals from Rocky Rodríguez (left) and Tyler Lussi secured a Thorns win over Kansas City April 9, in the first pro sports event played in front of fans in Oregon since March 2020.

In Oregon’s first major league outdoor sports event since the state announced outdoor venues could host crowds at limited capacity, the Portland Thorns won 2–1 over Kansas City in their opening game of the 2021 Challenge Cup on Friday night, April 9.

Goals from Rocky Rodríguez and Tyler Lussi brought victory, while the final minutes saw Simone Charley leave the game after a second yellow card, coach Mark Parsons sent off shortly after, and then Morgan Weaver and KC’s Kristen Edmonds out with red cards after a sideline scuffle. The team is appealing the red card for Weaver, who appeared to put up her hands up and walk away after being hit in the face by Edmonds, but if it stands she will miss the next game, along with Charley and Parsons. Three players and a coach sent off represent the most red cards ever issued in a game in the history of the National Women's Soccer League, which started play in 2013 and which does not use video review during games.

The drama provided an extra charge to what was for many an emotional return to Providence Park. At 25 percent capacity, just over 6,000 tickets were available for the match, offered first to season ticket holders and grouped around the stadium in distanced pods of one to eight people.

Pavel and Samantha Lutskovsky in their game garb

“We’re stoked. It’s like being able to go back to church,” said a red-scarved Samantha Lutskovsky before the game. Even though the scattered seating arrangement meant she wouldn’t be sitting in her regular section with its regular crew (the Upchucks), she said, “It feels like family.”

“Like going back home,” added a patch-adorned Pavel Lutskovsky, who said the two of them were last inside the park for the Timbers’ game against Nashville on March 8, 2020, three days before pro sports began a months-long shutdown.

The first pro league to return to play last summer was the NWSL, with the Challenge Cup bubble tournament. This second Challenge Cup serves as a kickoff to the NWSL 2021 regular season, which will start in mid-May. The five NWSL teams in the Eastern time zone will play each other, while the Thorns play the four other teams in the “west”: they’ll face the Chicago Red Stars on Thursday, April 15; host the Tacoma-based OL Reign on Wednesday, April 21; and travel to play 2020 Challenge Cup champs the Houston Dash on Sunday, May 2. The top team from each group will make it to a championship game May 8.

“We watched every game of the Cup last year,” reported Rachel Bunke and her family, who had come from Vernonia and were excited to see some of the 2021 Challenge Cup in person—and hopefully a Thorns win.

After watching the 2020 Challenge Cup on TV, the Bunke family was excited to see a game in person.

The Bunkes, Lutskovskys, and others in attendance were rewarded with a Thorns shot within two minutes and a goal within 10. Rodríguez had scored at Providence Park during the 2020 Fall Series, but her header off a free kick from Meghan Klingenberg in the ninth minute was her first goal as a Thorn to be feted by fans in the stands. The Thorns added another goal from Tyler Lussi in the 58th minute, with Amy Rodriguez answering two minutes later with a goal for Kansas City.

Some marquee names were missing due to injury or international duty (Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, and Becky Sauerbrunn were on the field the next day in Stockholm for a US friendly against Sweden), but plenty of familiar faces were on hand: Adrianna Franch was in goal for the first time since 2019; in the midfield Celeste Boureille played in protective headgear around her nose and eyes that made her look (quite appropriately) like a superhero. In addition to Rodríguez, the game was also the fan debut of Christen Westphal, traded to the team last year, and 2020 draft pick Weaver, whose long runs up the field provided some of the second half's most exciting moments. It was the NWSL debut for Finnish defender Natalia Kuikka. 

Inside the park, messages from league sponsor Budweiser and new team partner TikTok joined the familiar logos of Widmer, Jersey Mike’s, Tillamook Cheese, and Old Trapper Beef Jerky. (Editor’s note: We just like writing the phrase “Old Trapper Beef Jerky.”) Arrows and aisle markers kept walkways organized, and fans were directed to ptfcmap.com for entry and exit information, directional maps, and food and drink ordering. Water fountains were closed, and there was no red smoke released for Thorns goals.

While the stadium was at times calm enough for people in the upper reaches to hear players call instructions to each other, the stadium’s North End was still a sea of swirling scarves and waving rainbow and trans and Portland city flags. Masks didn’t muzzle the chants of “PTFC” or, whenever Franch made a save, “She’s our keeper.” There was even a sense of communal joy in anger, with the thrill of booing at the ref—over a disallowed offside goal from Madison Everett, for example, or the red card for Weaver—in a stadium with like-minded strangers instead of booing at the ref alone on a couch. Fans might even have welcomed the collective grief of a loss. But seeing roses bestowed upon the triumphant goal scorers as “Our House” by Madness came on the sound system after the win—that, of course, was even better.

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