The Portland Thorns dominated OL Reign in the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup 2-0 to secure qualification for the final. The win was the third straight for the Thorns against their Cascadia rival and their fourth unbeaten. The Thorns equaled the longest unbeaten run by either team in this rivalry.
That streak came to an end on Sunday.
All the cliches about rivalries, like “form and tactics go out the window,” are sometimes true in rivalry matches because of the intensity and because it is a match like no other — passion and pride drive the game.
In the past few years, though, the biggest rivalry in the NWSL didn’t have that extra bite to it. The bite returned Sunday night in Providence Park — and it was easy to see from the first whistle to the last.
There are also major players in these rivalries: The heroes for one side and the villains for the other, and that is exactly who took center stage in the first fifteen minutes of the match. Christine Sinclair opened the scoring within five minutes with an audacious chip, and it looked like this could be a repeat of the Thorns’ demolition of Chicago.
OL Reign started the match well, despite conceding early. They pressed high and aggressively and were allowed to play extremely physically, which unsettled the Thorns.
“I thought the Reign did a great job the first, total time, 10 to 15 [minutes],” said coach Mark Parsons in the post-match press conference. “I thought Reign did a great job in being aggressive and being intense, and I think, you know, last week was probably a massive one-off. Every team that comes into the stadium — never mind your rivals — you’re going to see the best of them. You’re going to see the most intense version. So, yeah, it’s expected and that’s where I think it’s actually a positive advantage to us because, as the games go on and you get really big intense games.
“You know, here we are, game two of the regular season, and this was the most fiery, intense game we’ve seen throughout the whole of the Challenge Cup or regular season so far. We’ve already had two or three of these games. I think it’s an advantage. It’s a compliment to us, in fact. Everyone brings their best, and we’ve got to get used to it fast. I think we are used to it. And I think we only get stronger by playing in games like this.”
Reign’s heroes/villains stepped up to make sure they took control of the match. Jess Fishlock won the ball back off of Crystal Dunn and won a free kick. Megan Rapinoe stepped up and curled the free kick over the wall and into the back of the net.
Rapinoe then ran over to the North End and gestured, insinuating, “Gimme all your hate; I’m right here, and that was all me,” as Fishlock jumped on top of her.
Rapinoe and Fishlock were also involved in the second goal — another free kick only a few minutes later. Rapinoe played it short to Fishlock, who lofted it into the box. The Thorns were unable to clear, and Shirley Cruz was able to take advantage.
The Thorns grew into the game, but the Reign had their lead; they defended like their life depended on it, and Portland was wasteful in front of goal. The Reign were physical, and they wasted time — all of which is part of the game and part of the rivalry. As the Thorns looked for an equalizer, the fans hurled insults at the Reign players.
Ultimately, it was a disappointing result for the Thorns. Lindsey Horan said she “hated every bit of it” and the team is “pissed about the result.” The Reign were able to get a lead early and fended off the Thorns for the 60 remaining minutes.
Despite the bitter taste from the loss to OL Reign, it was a high-intensity and entertaining match. The Cascadia rivalry was on CBS Sports Network for all to see, and it got its swagger and edge back at the perfect time. The Reign stoked the rivalry fires after the match, courtesy of peak antagonizer, Megan Rapinoe, in the post-match press conference.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” said Rapinoe. “Obviously the Thorns fans need no introduction; they’re incredible. They have one big problem though ... They love me. So it’s really difficult for them to cheer against me. So when I scored, I had to go right over and really talk my sh*t. I was trying to talk sh*t to them, and they just didn’t know what to do. Then finally someone gave me like a big double f*ck you middle fingers up, and I was like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ Like, that’s the kind of rivalry that we want.”
Rapinoe continued to pull no punches about the Thorns and made sure to jab other teams, too. Again, one of the most effective antagonizers the game has seen.
“Yeah, I mean the Thorns are always a**holes; everyone hates them,” said Rapinoe. “That’s the general vibe. They’re always good, they’ve got the best stadium, they’ve got the best fans, you know. They always have incredible talent on the field, so everybody’s always gunning for you. You’ve got a big target on their back always, which I think is a privilege.
“So, I love it. I love all the sh*t-talking. I hope all the social media managers are going wild on every team, and Gotham New York New Jersey, Sky Blue FC, they have their own little thing going. I always think it’s fun; all the little side narratives and sideshow. That’s what keeps all the fans entertained, and I think will kind of take us to the next level as this league continues to grow.”
No matter how you feel about Rapinoe’s actions or post-match comments, she’s right: The Cascadia rivalry match was the most entertaining game of the season, and the “sideshow” adds to everything: the rivalry, the passion, the pressure and, ultimately, the league’s success.
The Thorns will look to bounce back against the Pride and have a point to prove now in this difficult stretch where they travel to Orlando and New Jersey. The team will take it one game at a time and look to correct some of the missteps they made in the match against the Reign.
But everyone’s lying if they say they haven’t already circled August 29th of the calendar. The NWSL’s Evil Empire versus OL Reign again. Rapinoe and the Reign have brought the fight back to the rivalry — and the only thing left to do is for the Thorns to go to the Cheney Stadium, score big goals, and taunt the Reign’s fans.
Rapinoe stoked the fire. Now it’s time for the Thorns to build a bonfire and really light this match up because that is what makes rivalries memorable and must-see TV. Just ask Julie Foudy about the Norwegians’ celebration in the 1995 World Cup or the English about Alex Morgan’s tea celebration.
This kind of antagonizing of players and fans — or in the soccer world, “sh*thousery” — is what fuels the sport and can take the NWSL to the next level while adding layer upon layer to this already intense rivalry.