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Jess Fishlock welcomes Cascadia rivalry passion: ‘We just hate Portland’

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Jess Fishlock has been a part of OL Reign's rivalry with the Portland Thorns since its inception in 2013. (John Froschauer/USA TODAY Sports)

OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock, in her 11th year in the NWSL, has seen the Cascadia rivalry between Seattle and Portland naturally evolve, with every individual result adding to a larger arc of history. Some of the biggest personalities in the NWSL have filled in the lineups on both sides, with Fishlock as one of the rivalry’s original members.

Speaking to Just Women’s Sports, the 36-year-old rattles off a quick list of players who have graced the matchup in the past: Herself, Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes, Sydney Leroux and Hope Solo on one side, and Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Emily Sonnet and Allie Long (the latter three have now played for both teams) on the other. Over the years, tackles came in a little bit harder, and competition felt a little more personal.

“It was definitely more of like, we were at each other’s throats more,” Fishlock says. “I definitely think that the rivalry itself has evolved more to which team is performing better in that moment, as opposed to us wanting to just rip each other’s eyes out.”

Outside of brief loans to other clubs, the Welsh star has been with the Reign since 2013 and has played in many Cascadia battles since the original one. Fishlock remembers both wins and losses, pointing out notable game-winning goals scored by Reign legends Kim Little and Rumi Utsugi. But even the losses carry significance, as reminders of how special the game of soccer can be regardless of result.

“We’ve also lost some games against them that — the games have been incredible. Which you just come off and you just think wow, what a game,” she says

The 2023 Reign aren’t resting on their past laurels. They want to both defend their 2022 Shield-winning campaign and win the club’s first-ever NWSL championship. They currently sit in fourth in the league standings, just two points behind their fierce regional rival and three behind league leaders San Diego. The Reign travel to Providence Park on Saturday with hopes of leapfrogging Portland and contending for the top of the table.

Immediate goals are in sight, but as a veteran player who has stayed at one club for her whole NWSL career, Fishlock can also take a moment to appreciate the impact of the Cascadia rivalry on women’s soccer in the U.S.

“I think it just has so much history for one,” she says. “I feel like this league, the franchises and the teams and the way that league works probably lacks a little bit of history.”

It’s an intense history informed by a regional dislike between Portland and Seattle, as with so many other American sports rivalries. But the Reign try not to let the larger storylines get in the way of playing like themselves.

“It’s more like, we just hate Portland,” Fishlock says. “And so we just really remember that. We don’t do anything different, we don’t have any kind of rituals. It’s just more methodical. It’s still football, but also, let’s not forget how much we hate Portland.”

In a league that’s in its 10th regular season, the ingrained passions of the Cascadia rivalry have been slow to develop elsewhere in the NWSL. Rivalries have to grow organically, instigated by regional proximity but frequently made real by the play on the field. Fishlock scored the Reign’s first-ever goal against the Thorns in their inaugural clash at Providence Park in 2013, setting the emotional tone for the battles to come.

Ten years later, Fishlock is ready to walk into Providence Park once again and silence the Thorns fans, known as the original tone-setters for local support.

“I think women’s sports, well women’s soccer for example, it kind of really needs that,” she says of the way the Rose City Riveters can change a game. “It needs the fans to kind of buy in to remembering that you’re at this game, but you’re actually supporting your team, and what does that look like?”

Sometimes that support looks like rude gestures and sounds like boos. One of the more recent iconic moments in the Reign’s history at Providence Park came in 2021, when Megan Rapinoe received a classic North End reception after scoring an equalizer in the Reign’s eventual 2-1 win.

“I was trying to talk s–t, and to them, and they just did not know what to do,” Rapinoe said at the time. “And then finally somebody gave me a big, double f–k you middle fingers up, and I was like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the kind of rivalry that we want.'”

Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe (right) are playing their last season together after 10 years. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

Fishlock sees those types of fan responses as part of an overall passion for the game.

“I’m not going to get offended by them flipping me off, I’m not gonna get offended by them booing me, because it’s actually really respectful for the most part,” she says.

“​​So when we go to Portland and they start flipping us off, and they start booing us, and they get super mad that we’re scoring goals, Pinoe’s scoring goals, that’s what we want, really, because we want to have that kind of personality at the end of the day.”

The Cascadia rivalry will be losing some of that personality at the end of 2023, as Rapinoe heads into retirement after this season. She won’t exactly receive a hero’s welcome in Portland this weekend, but the atmosphere will be worthy of a player of her stature.

“We just hope that she goes down there and she gets the stick that she deserves for being Rapinoe and playing for Seattle, but also the love and respect that she deserves for being who she is,” Fishlock says.

For Fishlock, there’s no sign yet of slowing down. She says she is feeling better after being sidelined with a hamstring issue in July and August, and she announced on Tuesday that she’s exercised her mutual option to stay with the Reign through 2024. She sees Saturday’s game as a singularly important opportunity, but she is also locked in on the bigger picture.

“It’s not just about Portland, it’s also, you’re coming up against a really good football team,” Fishlock says. “So you have to play well, and you have to be prepared well, and you have to be ready for a really hard game.”

The veteran admits she always relishes the opportunity to go into somebody else’s house and beat them. The Thorns pulled off that feat at Lumen Field earlier this season, and the Reign are eager to return the favor. They’ll be in hostile territory, but they’ll also be feeling the support from home.

“I think this is a game against the Portland Thorns that honestly could mean a lot and then do a little bit of damage to the opposition with who wins and who loses,” Fishlock says, before addressing the fans. “We need ya, so let’s go.”

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.