After ‘lengthy, wild’ yr away, followers return to skilled sports activities in Portland
They stood at the top of the stairs at the entrance to Providence Park in the southwest of the 20th century and in Morrison. They wore red Portland Thorns scarves and there was palpable enthusiasm.
It took about two hours for the Thorns’ game against Kansas City to start and the gates would not open for another 30 minutes. But JJ Bain and her father David had traveled from California to be part of the story and insisted on arriving early to make sure they were among the first fans to walk into the stadium in more than a year.
“It’s been a long, wild couple of months,” said JJ Bain. “I’m happy to be back. I just feel that this is right and that it belongs in my life. “
The Thorns hosted Oregon’s first large professional sports audience since COVID-19 in March 2020 on Friday, and welcomed thousands of fans under a limited capacity from the Oregon Health Authority. It was the Thorns’ first home game in front of fans in 545 days and the first professional sport in Portland to host spectators since March 10, 2020, when the Trail Blazers played against the Phoenix Suns at the Moda Center.
Those fortunate enough to be part of the story were rewarded with a 2-1 win over Thorns in a fun and irritable match of 19 fouls, 14 shots, a NWSL record, four red cards and a hand-to-hand fight.
It was the feather in the cap on a night fans had waited more than a year to enjoy.
“The last public event I attended was the Timbers Match on March 1st,” said Paul Hoffman, who played the game with his 9-year-old daughter Addison on Friday. “And now the first public event we can go to since the pandemic is a football game. That feels really appropriate. It’s nice to be with other people. Family is great to be with and I would never give that up for the world. But being in a place where everyone has one thing in common is pretty radical. “
It felt almost … normal.
“Right, yes,” said Hoffman. “Without the masks and everything else, yeah, it kind of feels normal. We are nearly there.”
Shortly before the gates opened at 6:05 a.m., people were bustling around in front of the stadium and soaking up the atmosphere. Parents took photos of their children standing on giant football statues that stood on the ground near Gate F. Fans wearing scarves got out of the MAX and strolled in line. Children soaked in a little sunshine in the early evening.
Before entering, viewers had to answer a series of health-related questions on their phones in order to gain access to their mobile tickets. After completing the survey, a barcode was displayed with the ticket information, which was then scanned by the staff at the gates.
When they finally entered, the fans entered a familiar place that felt decidedly different. The Thorns declined to post visitor numbers, saying they will only do so when they are back to full capacity. However, the OHA’s guidelines state that sporting events in high-risk circles – which Multnomah rejoined on Friday – can hold up to 15% a capacity of the venue. Around 3,750 fans were allowed to play in Providence Park on Friday.
The Thorns had an average of nearly 20,000 fans per game in 2019 – most for any women’s sport in the world – and the downsized audience was evident.
The halls were noticeably emptier, the lines for concessions were significantly shorter and the signs of the times were scattered everywhere. Hand disinfection stations were scattered around the stadium. There were signs in the hall encouraging people to wash their hands and practice social distancing. Announcements boomed through the loudspeakers, all reminiscent of masked mandates.
Overall, however, fans seemed happy to stick to the improved security measures. The line in front of Ax & Rose, where workers poured beer and served pizza slices, was neat and spread out. People seemed to be sitting in their assigned seats. Everyone wore a mask when they weren’t gnawing hot dogs and tacos, sipping modelos, or warming themselves up with a cup of Dutch Bros coffee.
“I think they made it as safe as possible,” Hoffman said. “Other states have already done this and it was relatively safe. In fact, I think we were probably a little slow to get back into the public eye, if you will. We didn’t hesitate to come. I think Providence Park handled this the best they could for what we just know. Hopefully it will stay that way. “
But others brought a little more fear.
After hiding in various stages of quarantine for more than a year and new variants of the coronavirus gaining traction, some approached the return of a large crowd with cautious gusto.
For season ticket holders Sara Cox and Sage Gregory it was a mixture of excitement and fear. On the one hand, they were thirsty to watch their beloved thorns and were eager to support downtown businesses that were ravaged by the pandemic. On the other hand, it had been a while since they circled so many strangers.
“I’m a little nervous,” said Cox. “It feels weird.”
“I haven’t really been anywhere in a year,” added Gregory.
It helped that they were both fully vaccinated and when they walked into the stadium some of the nerves turned to anticipation.
“For me, Portland is the thorns,” said Cox. “Not every city has a soccer team – or even a women’s soccer team – so I think being able to support women in sports is a big thing. A lot was taken from us, among other things. But it feels good to be back and support women in sports. “
Once the game started, the atmosphere was quieter and less noisy than a typical Thorns match due to the smaller crowd. But the fans were lively and a familiar hum hovered over the pitch.
When Rocky Rodriguez scored the first goal with a nice header in the 8th minute, the distant Rose City Riveters went ballistic. When a barrage of cards – including a red one for coach Mark Parsons – was unleashed towards the end of a close, heated game, the crowd was booed in disgust. And after it was all over, when the last horn rang and the song “Our House” by Madness boomed through the park, Portland’s players strolled to every corner of the stadium, clapping and waving to the fans in appreciation.
“The emotions were high,” said Meghan Klingenberg. “We haven’t had fans in a long time, as you all know, we had no connection. Our community is very closely connected to this team and is part of the structure of this organization. Without them, it felt like our 12th person wasn’t there in the field. It felt like the 12th person was back tonight. It was amazing, we loved it. “
For JJ and David Bain, who had been waiting eagerly for the gates to open 30 minutes earlier, love was mutual.
A die-hard Thorns fan since she was 12, despite living in the Bay Area, 20-year-old JJ has dragged her father to games four times over the years. They devised a fun little ritual visiting Portland, staying at a hotel in the West Hills, having lunch at Elephants Delicatessen and driving MAX to Providence Park.
When JJ flipped through Twitter and noticed that the Thorns had a few tickets to buy, she grabbed the chance to be part of the story.
“Being here after last year is unreal,” said JJ. “Although there are fewer people than normal who just cheer and know that you are all in the same church, all in the same boat, it’s just a really nice feeling.”
– Joe Freeman | [email protected] | 503-294-5183 | @BlazerFreeman | Subscribe to The Oregonian / OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and top stories.