Portland fans keep standards high at a record-setting final
A record-setting sellout crowd came out to Providence Park for the 2018 NWSL Championship
The Rose City Riveters display their tifo prior to the 2018 NWSL Championship between the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC at Providence Park. (Photo credit: Nikita Taparia for NWSL Media)
The Rose City Riveters display their tifo prior to the 2018 NWSL Championship between the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC at Providence Park. (Photo credit: Nikita Taparia for NWSL Media)

Portland, Oregon — For 90 minutes, they jumped and clapped and sang, and as the North Carolina Courage scored one, two, three goals, the time on the clock ticking ever higher, they held out hope for a last-minute miracle. And when it was all over, their beloved Portland Thorns defeated in the championship game in front of a sell-out crowd dressed almost all in red, the Rose City Riveters jumped and clapped and sang some more.

It wasn’t a surprising scene, to anyone who’s spent much time around these fans. This is just what they do. For the women’s game as a whole, though, this was history in the making.

“I think it’s just a huge day for women’s soccer,” said Thorns captain Christine Sinclair after the game. “This is hopefully what the future of the game is going to look like in this country, and here in Portland we have the honor and the privilege of playing in front of this crowd week in and week out.”

Although Portland has long set the standard for attendance in the league, averaging over 13,000 fans each year and over 16,000 in each of the last three seasons, this game, the highest-attended women’s club soccer championship in U.S. history and the only sell-out, was special even by this city’s standards. Providence Park’s north end, where the Riveters stand and chant to the beat of a booming red bass drum, was full to the rafters an hour before kickoff.

Following an overcast, drizzly morning (prompting chants of “let it rain, let it pour, let the Portland Thorns score” from the home fans), the sun broke through the clouds as the teams were on the field warming up. As soon as the anthem ended, the Riveters unfurled a huge two-panel tifo over the north end reading, “Where there’s fire… there’s smoke” — a dual reference, to the group’s “bonfire” chant and to the red smoke they set off when the Thorns score at home.

“It’s incredible,” said Thorns forward Caitlin Foord. “They’re by far the best fans in the world, and obviously they showcased that today. … It’s definitely the benchmark, and they’re setting the standard for football around the world in the women’s game.”

What’s striking about the crowds at Providence Park isn’t just that they’re loud — in fact, this weekend, they were less ear-splittingly loud than they were for the last sellout, a 3-1 win against Seattle in the regular season finale — but that they pay attention. The Riveters spend the whole game chanting, but the rest of the crowd doesn’t simply cheer every time Tobin Heath touches the ball, or every time play winds up near the opponent’s goal. They appreciate good combination play, slick dribbling, clever passing. They’re also liberal with their disapproval when they don’t agree with a call.

It’s an atmosphere opposing players appreciate, too. Certain visiting players, including Seattle’s Jess Fishlock and Chicago’s Sam Kerr, always seem to find another notch in Portland. This weekend, members of the Courage praised the home fans after the game. “I think this is exactly where you want to play a championship game,” said midfielder Sam Mewis. “I hope that this kind of atmosphere is what the NWSL comes to expect. … This standard here that they have in Portland is incredible, and I think it’s where we all want to be playing, is in this kind of an atmosphere. So I give the fans a lot of credit and I give the team a lot of credit for kind of creating that.”

At the end of the day, the game didn’t go Portland’s way, but the fans stayed as the team did their customary lap of the stadium, finally standing in a line in front of the north end to give their supporters one last goodbye for 2018. Head coach Mark Parsons’ young daughter, Edie, stood alongside defender Meghan Klingenberg and conducted the crowd’s cheers with a rose.

“I started tearing up a bit because — not necessarily because we lost, I mean, that does suck, but you know, you lose in life,” said Klingenberg. “It’s more about having these people around. It’s almost like having a family behind you every game. … You feel like, when you let yourself down, it’s one thing, but when you feel like you’ve let down your family, it’s something different. So it’s pretty emotional, but having them behind us is one of the best things in the world.”

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