Even with some melodramatic exits, Friday was a night of glorious returns at Providence Park.
A limited number of fans watched a soccer match at Providence Park on Friday, April 9, for the first time since a Timbers game on March 8, 2019 — when the pandemic hit — as the Portland Thorns opened play in the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup. Those fans were entertained to the end as Portland opened 2021 with a fiery 2-1 win over Kansas City.
Rocky Rodriguez and Tyler Lussi scored with athletic headers for Portland and Amy Rodriguez produced a quality goal for the visitors. And late, an already intense match turned wild as two Thorns players and coach Mark Parsons were ejected.
The match was a showcase of the Thorns' depth and versatility, and of their desire to reward supporters who hadn't seen them in person since the fall of 2019. The passion in the stands spilled onto the pitch before it ended as Thorns players Simone Charley and Morgan Weaver along with Parsons were sent off by referee Danielle Cheskey, who also dismissed Kansas City's Kristen Edmonds.
Charley's send-off was for two yellow-card worthy fouls the aggressive forward committed in the second half. Parsons followed Charley to the locker room after apparently delivering some colorful words to Cheskey, though the coach wasn't made available to the media so his specific quibble with the referee is unknown.
Weaver's red card came after a scuffle with Edmonds in the closing minutes of the match. Replays showed Edmonds throw Weaver to the turf as players battled for possession. The Kansas City player then chases Weaver and puts two hands to her face.
Portland's Meghan Klingenberg, who by then was out of the match and watched the scuffle from the sideline, said the NWSL needs to rescind Weaver's red card.
"I just want (officiating) standards to be held accountable, because for us, we're putting it all out on the field. We're doing everything that we can to win. We just practiced 10 weeks in preseason, and I think the players deserve quality refereeing and quality accountability when it comes to these matches," Klingenberg said. "I want my players safe. I want the other players on the other team safe as well. I don't think that's too much to ask."
The wild finish gave fans who have waited more than 500 days to see their Thorns reason to keep howling to the final whistle and beyond. The Thorns aren't announcing attendance numbers until they are allowed to be at full capacity. Only 15% capacity was allowed for Friday's match, reduced from the expected 25% when Multnomah County went back to the high-risk category for COVID-19. That would mean a maximum of about 3,700 fans was scattered around the 25,218-seat downtown stadium.
The limited number of fans didn't dampen the enthusiasm.
Portland midfielder Rodriguez gave them a quick jolt when she scored less than eight minutes into the match by directing a header beyond the reach of Kansas City goalkeeper Abby Smith. That the header came from a well-placed free kick delivery from Klingenberg came as no surprise.
Rodriguez joined the Thorns last season, but hadn't played in front of the team's supporters until Friday. It was worth the wait, she said.
"I can hardly find the words to describe the support that I feel," Rodriguez said. "We always felt the support from the fans through social media and whatnot, but there's nothing that can replace the physical presence. When our supporters start to cheer and at the end of the game you can feel the special connection with the supporters and the fans, I'm just very grateful to be a Thorny at this point."
With five of their big names away on international duty, and several others held out with injuries, Friday's match provided plenty of evidence that it wasn't just coach-speak when Parsons spent preseason talking about the competition for playing time up and down his roster. What might have looked like a bit of a makeshift lineup when it was announced played with the expected tenacity and with a number of solid-to-strong individual performances.
Klingenberg — shifted to midfield and clearly enjoying the opportunity — and Rodriguez were a formidable pairing with the ball at their feet, while third midfielder Celeste Boureille focused on playing disruptor.
Charley and Lussi pressured the KC backline relentlessly. Former Oregon Duck Marissa Everett was solid in the withdrawn attacker role often belonging to Christine Sinclair. Everett delivered a world-class finish that would have put Portland in front 2-0 before halftime but was narrowly offside.
Christen Westphal was impactful up and down the right sideline and delivered the spot-on cross for Lussi's header that briefly put Portland ahead 2-0.
Madison Pogarch at left back looked comfortable, as did the centerback pairing of Kelli Hubly and Natalia Kuikka, the Finnish newcomer who spent much of preseason training at outside back.
Adrianna Franch returned to keep watch on the Portland goal after missing all of 2020 with a knee injury. She was credited with two saves, and had no chance on a delicate flick from 6 yards by KC's Rodriguez that made the score 2-1 and made for a dramatic final half-hour.
"I'm really proud of the group," Klingenberg said. "We put in a lot of work this preseason, and I think that the fight showed out there (was great), and I'm really proud of them that they literally were working until the very last minute of the game."
For the Thorns, the four-game West Division phase of the Challenge Cup continues at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 15, with a match at Chicago. That match can be seen on Paramount+ streaming service. As it stands, the already shorthanded Thorns will make that trip without forwards Charley and Weaver and without Parsons, who will serve one-game suspensions.
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