PORTLAND — Providence Park has been the National Women’s Soccer League’s main stage over its first three seasons.
Attendance at Portland Thorns matches is perhaps the biggest success for a league that is the first women’s professional soccer league in the United States to survive into a fourth season.
The Thorns, however, haven’t always turned the enthusiastic crowds into a dominating home-field advantage. Changing that is one of the mandates for Mark Parsons, the third head coach in the Thorns short history.
“I’ve got a great feeling this place will be a fortress: a fortress in the support and a fortress on the pitch,” Parsons said. “You’re going to see an energy a tenacity a work ethic at home as good as anywhere else in the league. Players have talked about that right from the beginning.”
The Thorns fourth season kicks off Sunday evening at Providence Park in a match that marks a significant changing of the guard.
If healthy, Alex Morgan will be one of several former Thorns in the lineup for Orlando as the expansion Pride play their first NWSL match.
Morgan was traded to Orlando in a deal that gave the expansion team one of the biggest stars in women’s soccer to market and in return brought significant talent to Portland.
The trade was part of an offseason makeover that started with hiring Parsons away from the Washington Spirit to replace Paul Riley, who is now coach for the Western New York Flash.
Only eight players return from the 2015 Thorns team that missed the playoffs — including fourth-year Portland players Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair, Allie Long and Mana Shim.
Notable newcomers include U.S. Women’s national team players Meghan Klingenberg, Lindsey Horan and Emily Sonnet, star French midfielder Amandine Henry (who will arrive midseason), Danish international Nadia Nadim and Iceland’s Dagny Brynjarsdottir.
On Friday the Thorns announced the signing of rookie midfielder Celeste Boureille and the addition off waivers of Australian forward Hayley Raso. Boureille, who played at Cal, has been with the Thorns through the preseason. Raso played in nine games under Parsons with Washington last season.
As many as eight Thorns players could play in the Olympics — including Long who was not part of the American World Cup team but recently scored twice for the national team against Columbia. The Thorns don’t play during the Olympic tournament in August, but figure to be without players in the run-up to the Games.
Despite averaging more than 13,000 fans per game over their first three seasons, the Thorns have been respectable but not unbeatable at home. They are 17-10-5 at home over three seasons, but only in 2014 (7-4-1) did they win more than half their home matches.
Parsons understands that the atmosphere in Providence Park can lift the visitors as much as it does the Thorns. As head coach in Washington, the visit to Portland was the first one he circled when the schedule came out. But opponents’ excitement should not prevent the Thorns from owning their home turf, Parsons said.
Long, the Thorns all-time scoring leader with 22 goals, said a dominant home-field record is one of Portland’s goals this season.
“We have to mentally come into it that this is our home field and we can’t lose here. I think it has to be a pride thing,” Long said. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem anymore.”
Thorns at a glance
2016 season: 20 games, 10 at home between April and August. Top four teams make NWSL playoff semifinals.
Website: portlandthornsfc.com, games streamed live.
New coach: Mark Parsons, who coached the Washington Spirit the last two-plus seasons (17-27-12) replaces Paul Riley.
Key additions: US national team defenders Meghan Klingenberg and Emily Sonnett, US national team midfidelder/forward Lindsey Horan, French national team midfielder Amandine Henry (arriving midseason), Denmark national team forward Nadia Nadim, Iceland national team midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir, goalkeeper Adrianne Franch.
Key departures: Forward Alex Morgan (traded to Orlando), defender Rachel Van Hollebeck (retired), defender Steph Catley (traded to Orlando), midfielder Kaylyn Kyle (traded to Orlando), midfielder Lianne Sanderson (traded to Orlando), forward Jodie Taylor (signed with Arsenal), goalkeeper Nadine Anger (retired/now Thorns GK coach).