On Soccer: Encouraging start for Thorns, fans; Timbers open 11th MLS season on April 18.

COURTESY PHOTO: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/PORTLAND THORNS FC - For the first time since the fall of 2019, a limited number of fans were allowed at Providence Park on April 9 to watch the Portland Thorns take on Kansas City. Portland won 2-1 in its first NWSL Challenge Cup match.An occasion anticipated for 13 months did not disappoint.

On Friday, April 9, a limited number of spectators were on hand to watch the Portland Thorns beat Kansas City in an intense National Women's Soccer League clash at Providence Park.

The Thorns scored two high-quality goals, then held on through a crazy finish to open 2021 with a 2-1 victory.

Aside from remembering what it's like to hear the reaction from an invested fanbase — even one limited to 15% of capacity when Multnomah County went back to high-risk for COVID-19 transmission — the match will be remembered mostly for the contentious way it ended.

Portland's Simone Charley (for two dangerous plays), coach Mark Parsons (for some commentary about referee Danielle Cheskey's performance) and Morgan Weaver (for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it seems) were shown red cards. So was Kansas City's Kristen Edmonds, who momentarily seemed to think the soccer match streaming on Paramount+ had morphed into the WWE wrestling event streaming on ESPN+.

Before that kerfuffle at the end of the match, there was a lot more than just fresh air for Thorns fans to appreciate.

Portland is without five of its top players, who are in Europe for international matches. That will be the case Thursday, April 15, at Chicago, when the Thorns play the second of four NWSL Challenge Cup matches (4:30 p.m. PT/Paramount+). Add in a few injuries, and there isn't much lineup wiggle room.

The exciting news is, it looks like it wasn't just coach-speech when Parsons in preseason said the gap between the top players on the roster and those battling for playing time is as narrow as any team he's coached.

The two goals — on sharp headers from Rocky Rodriguez and Tyler Lussi on the end of wonderful deliveries from Meghan Klingenberg and Christen Westphal — were well-taken. And, what might be considered a makeshift lineup played with the expected tenacity and with a number of solid-to-strong individual performances.

COURTESY PHOTO: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/PORTLSND THORNS FC - Meghan Klingenbers enjoyed getting a run as a midfielder in the Portland Thorns' April 9 opener at Providence Park, a 2-1 win over Kansas City in the NWSL Challenge Cup.Klingenberg — shifted to midfield and clearly enjoying the opportunity — and Rodriguez were a formidable pairing with the ball at their feet in midfield, 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.

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, who spent most 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 Amy Rodriguez that made the score 2-1 and preceded a dramatic final half-hour.

It's silly, of course, to put too much stock into one game at the start of a long season. But, given the circumstances, an excited reaction makes sense. And, it wasn't only the fans who were emotional.

Rodriguez was acquired before the 2020 season, but this was the first time the Costa Rican midfielder got to be feted by Thorns supporters.

"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 on and at the end of the game you can feel the special connection with the supporters and the fans, so I'm just very grateful to be a Thorny at this point."

Timbers advance in CCL — The Timbers' first chance to play in front of fans was slated Tuesday, April 13. They pulled away in the second half for a 5-0 win over C.D.Marathon of Honduras, and won the first-round Concacaf Champions League matchup 7-2 over two legs.

Yimmi Chara's three goals and some strong play from Dairon Asprilla highlighted the win, which advances Portland to likely face Mexico City's Club America in the quarterfinals, which begin in late April.

The Timbers will shift focus this weekend, opening their 11th MLS season at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 18 with a match against the Vancouver Whitecaps that will take place in Sandy, Utah, the home base for the Whitecaps until travel between the United States and Canada reopens.

Pilots wrap up spring — The University of Portland soccer teams complete their 2020/21 season this week.

The UP men are scheduled to play a nonconference match with Corban at Merlo Field on Wednesday then play host to Saint Mary's at 1 p.m. Saturday (minimal fans allowed). The Pilot men are 3-3-3 overall, 1-2-3 in West Coast Conference games.

The UP women complete the spring season on Saturday, April 17 at BYU. The Pilots are 3-3-3, 2-3-3 in the WCC. Except for a 3-0 win on March 27, Portland is scoreless in four of its last five matches.

Big win for OSU Oregon State beat No. 5-ranked Stanford 3-2 in Corvallis on April 10, a result that helps the Beavers (8-4) chances of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.

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