[Welcome to our "Say Nice Things About Portland" guide to the city! Did you know that this feature package is also in PRINT?? That's right, this is our first print product since the start of the pandemic, and we're psyched to produce a lot more. Find the "Say Nice Things" guide in over 500 locations around the city, and if you'd like to see more guides you can hold, please consider making a small contribution to the Mercury, please and thank you!—eds]
Portland doesn’t make many lists of the best sports cities in the country… and that’s okay. If you know, you know.
The Trail Blazers have, pandemic-affected seasons notwithstanding, been in the top ten in average NBA attendance every year since 2008. The Timbers sold out every single MLS home game in their history prior to the onset of the pandemic, a streak spanning ten years. The Thorns, at one point, were believed to have the highest average attendance of any women’s soccer team in the world.
In all cities, sports teams are a point of civic pride, games a matter of cultural expression. In Portland, we tend to take that stuff seriously. Here, then, are five things to love about Portland sports.
1. The 2005 Portland Pilots are still dominating women’s soccer
During the fall of 2005, Merlo Field, of all the stadiums and arenas in town, felt like the big time—and it was. The Portland Pilots’ women’s soccer team that year was indomitable, a sight to behold week in and week out.
The Pilots went undefeated that season with a record of 23-0-2, pasting UCLA 4-0 in the national championship game and outscoring their opponents 79-9. They were one of the most dominant college soccer teams ever assembled, and very likely the best team to ever call Portland home.
Now, nearly two decades later, the two best players on that team remain international superstars. Megan Rapinoe’s impact has transcended sport entirely, while Christine Sinclair has scored more international goals than any other person to ever play the game.
It wasn’t just Rapinoe and Sinclair. Soccer fans in Portland will remember Rachael Rapinoe, Megan’s twin sister, as one of the team’s fearsome leaders and Angie Kerr as a top scorer who would go on to represent the US national team.
But Rapinoe and Sinclair’s prominence, with their national teams, with their NWSL club teams, and in the fight for social justice in sport, has come in an era in which the women’s game is being afforded new levels of enthusiasm, investment, and respect not just in the US but in countries across the world.
Now in their late 30s, Rapinoe and Sinclair are both icons. To the thousands who wore purple to Merlo Field in 2005, their achievements have come as no surprise at all.
2. The loyalty of Damian Lillard
Here’s something that might make you feel pretty old: With the exception of 42-year-old Udonis Haslem and Steph Curry, Damian Lillard has played the most seasons with one team of any active NBA player.
It’s been nearly 11 years since the Trail Blazers selected Lillard with the sixth pick of the 2012 NBA draft, and in the decade that followed, as Lillard established himself as one of the league’s most indomitable players, the team has won only four playoff series. Lillard is 32 now, and the Blazers have just missed the playoffs for back-to-back seasons for the first time since Lillard joined the club.
This is not, as a rule, much of an era for one-team players in the NBA. Players have more power than ever over where they play, as well they should. That makes it all the more notable when a player of Lillard’s caliber stays in a city like Portland, with no real guarantee of success or even basic competence from his superiors.
Word is Lillard’s patience is, understandably, running thin. But even if Lillard never wins a championship here, it won’t diminish his greatness or the impact he’s made in Portland simply by virtue of showing up, year after year—whether on the Moda Center court or marching over the Morrison Bridge during the racial justice summer of 2020. In many ways, that’s exactly what greatness is.
3. The Sports Bra is leading the way
When Jenny Nguyen opened The Sports Bra just over a year ago, she had no idea what to expect.
“I opened the doors to The Sports Bra just thinking I was opening a bar that centered on highlighting girls and womens sports,” Nguyen said. “But what ended up happening, which I’m so grateful for, is we kind of created a space where none existed before.”
For Nguyen, who grew up off NE Killingsworth and has spent her whole life in Portland watching the Power, the Fire, and especially the Thorns amass renowned support, it was clear that this was the place to take a shot at doing something different.
“When I thought of The Sports Bra, I thought, okay, if this is going to work, it has to work in Portland,” Nguyen said. “But if it doesn’t work in Portland, it will never work anywhere.”
A year-plus later, the bar isn’t just working in Portland, it may be at the forefront of an international movement. Nguyen said she has received “hundreds” of emails from people inquiring about how to create women’s sports bars in cities around the world, from Rio de Janeiro to London to Sydney to Saigon.
Still, the Northwest is leading the way. Rough and Tumble in Seattle has a goal of showing an equal amount of men’s and women’s sports, while Icarus opened in Salem earlier this month as the state capital’s first women’s sports bar.
“We support women here,” Nguyen said. “Hard core. In a lot of different ways. Especially in the sports arena. And I just think that people are very intentional about how they create space in their lives… it means a lot to people here in Portland.”
The Sports Bra, 2512 NE Broadway, thesportsbrapdx.com
4. Irving Park basketball’s democracy
When Portland Parks & Recreation announced its plan to remove 243 light poles from 12 city parks beginning in February and only replace a handful of them, a number of Portlanders responded with outrage.
Public parks are, in many ways, the best of the Portland sports landscape—home to soccer camps, kids learning to field ground balls, Underdog kickball leagues, and, of course, pickup basketball at Irving Park.
All great basketball cities have a spot where aspiring players go to prove themselves and everybody else goes to try to keep up with them—flourishing democracies in a society devoid of them.
Rucker Park in New York; the Venice Beach Courts in Los Angeles; Mosswood Park in Oakland; and, more humbly but no less meaningfully, Irving Park in Portland. Its covered courts are alive in the winter, while the rest of the year its maroon outdoor courts buzz, surrounded by verdant shades of green and soundtracked by shouts, squeaking shoes, and the hum of traffic on Fremont Street just beyond its north boundary.
Thanks to the backlash to the Parks & Recreation announcement, Commissioner Dan Ryan signed off on a plan in March to replace all the light poles which were scheduled to be taken down.
5. Timbers players come home
It’s a fairly common occurrence: Timbers players leave the club, bounce around to different North American cities, different continents, different leagues, different levels, and then, when they’ve exhausted their careers as professional soccer players, they come home.
They’re not always stars, and they’re often people without any prestanding connection to the Northwest. People like Kalif Alhassan, Fanendo Adi, Futty Danso, and Nat Borchers, back to Scot Thompson and Bernie Fagan, people who got a taste of life and soccer in Portland and decided it was where they could find their next projects and identities.
Futty, Alhassan, and Adi have suited up for PDX Football Club, rubbing shoulders on a field in Gresham with supporters who used to cheer them at Providence Park. Borchers served as a broadcaster. Vytas and Liam Ridgewell work as coaches with the Thorns and Timbers, respectively. Many others return as visitors, retaining their ties with the club.
Portland is not the only place with a community of former players. But that community here is strong. The day before the Timbers hosted MLS Cup two years ago, a group of former players delivered the trophy to the entrance of Providence Park, where they were met by supporters for what felt like a family reunion—a rainy, unlikely, very Portland celebration of soccer and life and the knowledge that we all are lucky enough to call this place home.