The afternoon before the Portland Thorns battled the San Diego Wave for a spot in the NWSL championship game, a group of 20 people gathered outside the northeast entrance to Providence Park. They had three main goals: support the players, build community, and pressure Peregrine Sports LLC to sell its two pro soccer teams: The NWSL’s Portland Thorns and MLS’s Portland Timbers.
The crowd held signs, declaring that “Thorns belong to us, not ‘good guys’” and “you knew.”
The latter is a refrain that has echoed across the league this year, in the wake of allegations of abuse against multiple former NWSL coaches and staff. Portland had its own reckoning when The Athletic published a story on former Thorns head coach Paul Riley’s sexually coercive behavior toward several of his former players in September 2021 and accounts of the Timbers covering up former player Andy Polo’s domestic violence emerged in February.
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Last year, the club temporarily suspended general manager Gavin Wilkinson from his Thorns duties, but many fans felt that his stepping away was not close to the restructuring that both PTFC teams needed. A collection of those fans started Soccer City Accountability Now (SCAN) in April. The organization has arranged protests, contacted club sponsors and media and demanded that Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson sell both teams.
“The front office has just continued to give us reasons to keep coming out,” said Amy Cothron, who’s been a fan of both teams since 2018. “They’ve demonstrated time and time again their inability to treat people with respect and really support their employees.”
At the start of October, former U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates released a U.S. Soccer-commissioned investigation into the allegations of abuse in Portland and a handful of other NWSL teams, detailing the systemic failures to protect players across the league. Both Wilkinson and President of Business Mike Golub stepped away from the teams following the Yates report. Paulson resigned from his role as CEO soon after — though he remains financially involved as an owner of Peregrine Sports.
For SCAN and other PTFC fans, Peregrine Sports’ continued ownership of the clubs meant Paulson’s removal wasn’t good enough. Hence, the demonstrations ahead of Portland’s semifinal match — the first Thorns or Timbers home game since the Yates report was published.
For fans like Cothron, PTFC games are community events where she gets to spend time with friends who she may not see in other areas of her life. Paulson’s continued silence around abuses has “sullied” the idea of that community, she said, and he’s passed on enough opportunities to address abuse in his club that she thinks him leaving completely is the only way to ensure that those patterns don’t continue.
For some fans, the solution is simple: transfer the clubs to the ownership of their supporters. They’ve started the Onward Rose City project, which has seen 65,000 pledged shares totaling around $7.3 million since Friday.
SCAN member and Timbers and Thorns supporter Sofia Freja said she’s seen overwhelmingly positive responses to the group’s protests. But, she said, “tomorrow’s going to be about supporting the players” in their semifinal game.
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And on matchday, a group of fans — mostly members of the Portland Thorns supporters group, the Rose City Riveters — gathered outside the west side of Providence Park, across the street from the players’ entrance. By noon they’d grown to a crowd of 50, holding signs that read “Sauerbrunn is my hero” and “Christine Sinclair GOAT” and larger two-sticks that said “This club was made for you and me” and “Keep your eyes on the prize” accompanied by an NWSL shield drawing. As players showed up, they erupted into cheers.
“We know that there are a lot of emotions and feelings,” Gabby Rosas said of the group gathered outside the stadium. Rosas is a member of the Riveters and board president of the 107ist, a nonprofit for Portland soccer supporters. She said she’s talked to people that don’t feel comfortable going into the stadium — some because they don’t want to give money to PTFC ownership, others because it’s a place of trauma for them — but the Riveters rally is a way “to be able to show the players we love you, we care about you, we want to support you.”
It’s also about making sure that the players know that fans have their back, SCAN member Tina Ettlin said. Although SCAN planned a demonstration in the stadium — fans held up red “for sale” and “sell the club” signs in the 10 minutes leading up to kickoff — its members emphasized that once the ref blew the starting whistle, everyone’s attention would be on the players. After goalkeeper Bella Bixby urged fans to come show their support for players by packing the stadium, over 22,000 turned out for the match — the second-largest playoff attendance in league history.
Their attention paid off. Despite going down early when an unmarked Taylor Kornieck capitalized on a header opportunity to put the Wave up 1-0, the Thorns were able to secure a victory with two brilliant goals.
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Rocky Rodríguez leveled the play in the game’s 20th minute, getting on the end of the third ball off a Thorns corner just outside the 18 and hitting a rocket volley into the back of the net.
But, despite a handful of strong looks from the Thorns and a brilliant first-half save from Bixby, it would take until second-half stoppage-time for either team to strike again — through none other than 2015 NWSL golden boot-winner, new mom, and second-half substitute Crystal Dunn.
In the dying minutes of the game, Dunn got on the end of another poorly-cleared ball from a Thorns corner and — as she put it in the postgame press conference — “literally hit it with all [her] might.” And it was enough to put Portland through to its first NWSL final since 2018.
“Our fans have been through a lot this year, as well as the players,” Dunn said in the postgame presser. “I think them showing up is exactly what we want for this community. We want everyone to be able to voice their opinion and share their feelings. But at the same time, we understand that without fans, the game’s just not as fun.”
The goal was “an explosion of emotions” for everyone in the stadium, Rodríguez said – a feeling backed up by those in the stands.
“I wouldn’t do what I do for a millionaire,” said Ettlin, who also serves as a capo for the Timbers and Thorns. “I’m not doing this for Merritt. These players and non-male-centric sports are super important to me, personally, so making sure that people who are involved in that, centering them is all I want to do.”
(Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / USA TODAY Sports)
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