PORTLAND — Fan appreciation day usually comes at the end of a team’s season.
But for the Portland Thorns FC, the appreciation that flowed from the field and the stands at Jeld-Wen Field made Sunday afternoon extra special.
A crowd of 16,479 fans turned out to welcome the Thorns and the new National Women’s Soccer League to Portland, creating a buzz that players said reminded them of World Cup matches.
“It kind of gave everyone chills,” Alex Morgan said
It didn’t hurt the festive atmosphere that the home team scored a 2-1 win over the Seattle Reign, a win that featured a scoring combination between stars Christine Sinclair and Morgan.
“It’s a soccer city, and the energy here is amazing,” Canadian national goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc said. “It felt like any international big game, It felt like everybody wanted us to be successful.
“I’ve played here with Canada several times and I’ve never been on the end where they’re actually cheering for you. I love it.”
Morgan’s goal in the 51st minute put Portland ahead 2-0 and marked the first time in the two-week history of the NWSL that a team scored more than one goal.
And it proved to be the difference.
Sinclair, who played at the point of Portland’s midfield instead of her familiar forward spot, stole the ball and quickly made a pass to her left that sent Morgan free into the penalty area.
“(Sinclair) has great vision and awareness of her teammates and the open space,” Morgan said. “She just played a great through ball. I knew if I placed it far post I’d beat the keeper.”
Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone said she shifted Sinclair behind Morgan and Angie Kerr to give Sinclair more access to the ball.
“Christine, everyone knows her as an amazing goal scorer,” Parlow Cone said. “But what people don’t really pay attention to is that she’s one of the best passers of the ball in the game. I wanted her on the ball more for that reason.”
The first home goal in Thorns history came in the closing seconds of the first half from defender Marian Dougherty. Nikki Washington served a free kick from midfield that Dougherty was able to head down and inside the far post.
The momentum from that moment carried into the second half. Morgan scored the second goal and the Thorns created several other near misses, including shots from Morgan and Allie Long that narrowly missed the right post.
The match featured plenty of spirit. There were 21 total fouls and three players on each team drew yellow cards.
“It was an intense game,” Sinclair said. “At times there were some not-so-clean tackles going on out there. Hopefully it’s the start of a great rivalry between ourselves and Seattle. It’s what this league needs.”
A goal from Seattle’s Jessica Fishlock — who emerged from a collision near the top of the penalty area to blast home a shot in the 73rd minute — added some drama. But the visitors couldn’t do enough to spoil opening day for the Thorns, who came away believing they have a special home.
“I think it can be intimidating for an away team,” Sinclair said of the noise. “Especially in this league because this is going to be the only city that gets this type of crowd. When you haven’t been here before it can be intimidating.”
The players knew 16,000 tickets were sold. But they were more impressed by the atmosphere — including game-long chants from supporters in the north end sections — than by the number of fans.
“It was a great Portland vibe,” Morgan said. “We weren’t sure what to expect. But right from warmups to game time you heard the fans loud. I think every team that comes to Portland … will be intimidated by the atmosphere.”