When the Portland Thorns players were celebrating their third NWSL Championship with the fans last November, Christine Sinclair felt it was the perfect opportunity to say something. “So I’m announcing it here - I’ll be back next year to win a fourth,” the captain, a legend of this team, proudly proclaimed, before delivering a line that got an even bigger cheer: “And f*ck Seattle!”
The Thorns hadn’t beaten Seattle’s NWSL side, OL Reign, in the Championship game, nor had they met in the previous rounds. But, just like Will Johnson, the Portland Timbers captain that declared the same thing after lifting the MLS Cup in 2015 – also without beating Seattle - Sinclair knew the fans would lap up some slander of the team’s biggest rival.
The feeling across the state border, in Washington, is mutual. Indeed, when GOAL discusses the rivalry with Reign stalwart Lauren Barnes, she pauses and asks someone at the team’s training ground if they want to say something about Portland. That passer-by takes the opportunity up, grabs the phone and states plainly: “We hate Portland.” It’s Laura Harvey, the Reign head coach.
Whether it’s players flipping the bird at opposing fans, match-goers being cheekily heckled by the other team or Megan Rapinoe’s genuine love of getting a hostile reaction while trying to, in her own words, “talk sh*t” at the Portland crowd, this is the NWSL’s biggest and best rivalry.
Better yet, it’s one of the best in the entirety of women’s soccer.
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As the Timbers’ own “f*ck Seattle” moment shows, this isn’t a rivalry restricted to the Thorns and the Reign. It’s a rivalry between two of the biggest cities in the Pacific Northwest that has long-existed, one that transcends various sports and so much more, but one that is by no means watered down by that fact.
It’s something that Sinclair herself knows well. Canada's record-breaking star had family members who played for the Timbers before the team entered the MLS in 2009, “so she has this deep-rooted rivalry in her,” team-mate Emily Menges explains.
“I would definitely say my hatred for Seattle started with Christine Sinclair,” she tells GOAL. “She more than anybody did a good job of just kind of spreading that to the players who would come to the team and everybody who has come since. That's kind of how I first realized that I should be hating Seattle.”
It's something that both MLS and NWSL have tapped into, too, often scheduling the Thorns’ games against the Reign and the Timbers’ games with the Seattle Sounders on the same day, resulting in some memorable double-headers and a real growth in support on both sides.
A new rivalry formed
The NWSL’s iteration of this rivalry began in 2013, with the Thorns and the Reign founding members of the league. “In the first year, it was fun. You kind of could feel it,” Jess Fishlock, who joined Seattle in that inaugural year, recalled in an interview with Indivisa. “The games are just electric. They are so intense. It's just a different level of game, you know?
“It is probably more authentic because it's our history. It's our rivalry that we've been building. It's not a rivalry that is from a different game, if that makes sense. It's just really fun to be a part of something like that. Hopefully, the women's game can get more of them but it takes time, at the end of the day, to build that up.”
Over the past decade, this Cascadia derby has built it up in spades. “It runs so deep now,” Barnes, who has also been present since 2013, adds. “Whether it's with the Sounders or us, both teams have been so competitive from the start.
“Portland has a lot of Championships underneath them, and we're still striving to get there, but when it comes to us playing [each other], that kind of all goes out the window because it's basically a Championship game every single time. We literally set up like that because that's how important these games are."
Walking into a 'cauldron'
A huge factor in all of this, of course, is the fans. The Rose City Riveters supporters’ group was founded before the Thorns had even signed a single player, and the Reign’s Royal Guard was established in that inaugural year, too. From buses of away fans to creative chants and amazing tifos, both always play their part in these games.
“They pull out all the stops,” Menges says. “They do an amazing job every day, but I do think it's just like the little extra things that they do on [derby] days that just get us off on the right foot.”
“I think, honestly, that's kind of what fuels it for the players,” Barnes adds, with that not restricted to the fans that are cheering you on. “We always say that the Portland fans hate it. But they love to love Pinoe. She's definitely going to capitalize on that.”
"Obviously the Thorns fans need no introduction - they're incredible," Rapinoe said after beating the Reign’s big rivals in May 2021. "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 talk my sh*t.
“I was trying to talk sh*t and they just did not know what to do. And then finally somebody gave me a big double f*ck you middle fingers up and I was like 'That's what I'm talking about! That's the kind of rivalry that we want!'"
“The fans are just brutal - in the best possible way,” Fishlock says. “They're booing you and screaming at you and cheering if you do something stupid. That's kind of what you want, right? I don't really want to go into somebody else's stadium and have a neutral kind of fanbase. I don't want that - and I don't think that women's football wants that either.
“It needs to get into this place where you go into almost a cauldron. That's what these games are and that's what they're like."
Triumphant start for the Thorns
It was the Thorns that got off to a flying start in the rivalry, and the NWSL generally, back in 2013. Portland beat the Reign in each of the pair’s first four meetings, on the way to the 2013 NWSL Championship.
“Early on, Laura Harvey threw down her pen at the end of a press conference in frustration about how just sickening it was to her that the Thorns had come up and beaten them yet again,” Luke Fritz, who has been involved with the Riveters supporters’ group since day one, remembers of that first year.
“I think it was the last game of the season we had gone up there and it was just to our delight, and they were just so frustrated. Seattle had a really poor first season. I think part of that delight for us was that this was our regional rival and we got off on a really good solid footing.
“[The 2013 final] is probably a top highlight of my supporter life, when Sinclair scores in front of us and celebrates to win the first championship. They invited us out to celebrate with them that night. The owner paid for our entire bar tab. It's just something I think was possible with the very small size of the league at that time, that would never ever fly now. It is that original memory.”
It would be the first of three Championships for the club, more than any other NWSL side to date. But the Reign would soon become a force, too...
When Fishlock gets talking about the Reign's 2014 team, the admiration for how good it was oozes out of her. Alongside herself, Rapinoe and Barnes, Seattle had U.S. women’s national team stars Hope Solo and Sydney Leroux, Scotland icon Kim Little, Japan’s magical Nahomi Kawasumi, the oh-so-consistent Beverly Yanez – the list goes on.
Over the next two years, those players would help the Reign win four of its next five meetings with the Thorns and two NWSL Shields. Seattle was the team to beat.
The highlight of those meetings with Portland was undoubtedly in July 2014, when the Reign hammered its rival 5-0 at home. It’s the first game Fishlock mentions when she is asked for her favourite memory in the rivalry. Menges, meanwhile, answers with the same game before GOAL can even finish asking her for her worst memory.
“We had our game plan,” the Portland star says, recalling the game from her rookie season. “[Memorial Stadium’s] field is notoriously hard to play on. It's so small, so bouncy, but the Reign somehow figured out a way to play there. Their record at home was unbelievable. No other team could come there and beat them.
“We had ramped ourselves up and we ended up losing 5-0. It was the absolute worst. It was after four minutes that they scored. We're like, 'Oh no'. After ramping yourself up so high, 'We're going to rise, we're going to defy all the odds', and then just being absolutely slaughtered. That was not ideal. They were just such a dominant team. It was easy to be like, 'F*ck those guys'.
“The first two years I was in the league, 2014 and 2015, they won the Shield quite handily, even though they lost the Championship. Just from watching that, for a team to be so dominant right off the bat, you could easily be like, 'Ah, all I want to do is beat that team'.”
'Blue for a day'
In 2014, the Reign won the Shield and had a shot at the Championship, but lost to FC Kansas City in the final. In 2015, history repeated itself. It’s that second shot at glory that is a particularly bad memory for Reign fans when it comes to the rivalry with the Thorns.
“This actually was the moment that made me realize the rivalry,” Jocelyne Houghton, one of the Royal Guard's vice-presidents, explains. “It was always there but this is the moment I realized.”
Portland hosted the 2015 Championship game, and because its biggest rivals were involved, the fans were ready to do whatever they could to ensure the Reign would not be lifting the trophy on the Thorns’ pitch.
“The supporters had this thing that they called 'blue for a day', so they were basically supporting Kansas City,” Houghton recalls. “We were playing in enemy territory and we held it against them ever since. I don't know what else they should have done but that was kind of the moment that I was like, 'Oh my god, alright. I hate you!'”
“We adopted that team,” Fritz remembers. “We were chanting for Kansas City. We wanted nothing to do with Seattle winning a championship on our home turf. It was definitely a healthy day for us to build that rivalry, even though we weren't even on the pitch.”
Fast-forward to today and, while the Reign has won more Shields than anyone else, that Championship title still evades the team. That certainly makes it sweeter for Portland to have won more than any other side.
Fishlock, Sinclair and the OGs
There are so many of these moments that mean the rivalry rumbles on and grows year on year. There are plenty of characters on both sides who make sure that is the case, too.
“The funniest thing for me is when we have new girls come in, having to teach them that history,” Barnes says. “I don't think anyone really realizes it until you come to the Reign and get to play in a Portland game, staff included. Being able to pass that down to other generations and watch that be instilled in the team has been really fun for me.”
The defender laughs when asked if she’s able to disclose any of the “rituals and routines” the club has ahead of the Portland games. “Probably not,” she replies. But the engagement between the players and the fans when it comes to these games and how they emphasize the rivalry is clear for all to see.
Harvey epitomized that at the end of the 2022 season when celebrating the Shield with the fans. The coach climbed into the supporters’ section, grabbed the mic and chanted, to the tune of ‘When the Saints Go Marching in’: 'We won the shield, we won the league, we won the league at Lumen Field, we won the league and smashed f*cking Portland!'
But the player at the Reign that “embodies” the rivalry, according to rival Menges, is Fishlock. Whether it’s flipping the bird at the Portland fans or taking the more creative method of stomping on a bouquet of roses, mocking the tradition the Thorns players have of handing them out when they win, she really soaks it in.
Unsurprisingly, on the Portland side, Sinclair is central. Menges explains how her side comments throughout the season, “Like, 'Ah, I hate those guys. F*ck those guys. F*ck Seattle,” act as “the constant little reminders” for the new players of who the rival is.
“We have this small group of players who have only played for Seattle and a small group of players who have only played for Portland and it makes for kind of a fun rivalry,” she adds. “Then of course, after the game, you're kind of like, 'Hey buddy'.”
The adopted citizens
That influence of the OGs and the players who really get it means it’s not just about them, though. There are so many examples of players throwing themselves into the rivalry after arriving at Portland or Seattle.
Meghan Klingenberg, who has been in Portland since 2016, is certainly one of those. “She's another one who just throws herself fully into the mix,” Menges says. But it also applies to players to pass by fleetingly, with Houghton recalling a hilarious moment from her first Portland away day that illustrates this best.
“We're walking up to the stadium and somebody drives past us and yells some sort of banter at us and basically heckles us,” she remembers. “We turned around and were like, 'Oh, that's Nadia Nadim!' That's okay. I will take being heckled by Nadia Nadim. It was pretty funny.”
“She is another one, similar to Kling, where if there's a cause she's going to throw herself 100 percent into it,” Menges adds, talking about the Denmark international who played for Portland for just two years. “There's one game that I will never forget. It was 2016 and all of our national team players were gone [for the Olympics]. We've notoriously had a pretty heavy national team presence, especially in our starting line-up, and so when they're gone, it's a very different group of players.
“It was one of those situations and we were playing Seattle and they had hardly lost anybody. We were by far the underdogs but we were playing at home and Nadia ended up scoring a headed goal in the last couple of minutes of the game. We had no business winning that game, but it was just kind of a testament to that rivalry and just the extra energy that you bring.”
Two well-matched title contenders
Both of these teams will continue to be up there and in the NWSL mix. That is part of what keeps the rivalry so healthy. There is always a lot on the line – and that is before we even get to the bragging rights.
“They're always quite a big presence in our league,” Menges says. “I think it helps that they are a good team. I think if they were a team that kind of landed last in the table, year after year, they would be a little bit more irrelevant, so it's giving them a little bit of credit as well that this rivalry has stayed alive."
It’s one of several nice things she says about the Reign and its role in the rivalry, leading her to stop herself halfway through, laugh and clarify: “I'm complimenting Seattle quite a bit, but I do hate them."
As the two prepare to meet for the first time in the 2023 season, the head-to-head stats are slightly in favour of the Reign, with 14 wins compared to the Thorns’ 12. Those in Seattle will no doubt want to remain ahead in those standings, with Barnes describing it as “almost like a whole other tournament in itself - that’s how big it is for us”. But their bigger goal will certainly be to end their wait for a Championship trophy.
Portland, meanwhile, has the upper hand there. “We are happy to say that they've never won the championship,” Fritz says. “That's a point of pride for us.”
Will that change this year? How big a role will this Cascadia derby play in deciding the fate of each team’s season? Could the pair finally meet in an NWSL Championship game, even?
Only time will tell – but one thing is certain. When these two meet, there will be plenty of fireworks. There always is.