When facing a fierce rival in the midst of one of the tightest NWSL playoff races in recent memory, Portland Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg is in favor of keeping things simple. The Thorns are currently in second place in the league table with four games left in the regular season, only one point behind the first-place San Diego Wave. And while the stakes are high, they are taking things one game at a time.
The next match on the schedule happens to be a massive opportunity against Cascadia rivals OL Reign on Saturday, but Klingenberg has the veteran knowledge to know that sometimes larger narratives can get in the way of the task at hand.
“I feel like there’s a story that people like to tell, because it’s a good story,” she wryly tells Just Women’s Sports. “But no, we take every team seriously. And as much as we love rivalry games, and as fun as they are, we approach them the exact same way that we would approach any other match.”
In professional sports, players can write themselves into history by not getting swept away by the moment, but the heightened emotions surrounding events like the Cascadia rivalry are also impossible to ignore.
While she’s keeping things in balance, Klingenberg knows no one heightens the moment quite like Portland fans, who will again pack Providence Park on Saturday. The 35-year-old has played in a number of iterations of the matchup since joining the Thorns in 2016 and making the city of Portland home.
“What I love so much is that [the fans] truly hate Seattle as much as we all do,” Klingenberg says. “And I feel like it’s this grudge that the city holds against Seattle as a bigger, more well-known city. But we love it, we have a blast playing into that story.
“Every time Seattle shows up here, it’s always extra fun because I know the fans are going to be super loud and I can barely communicate to the people next to me. That’s how crazy it is.”
The Thorns successfully handled that pressure earlier this year, taking a 2-0 win at Lumen Field in Seattle to earn their first away victory over the Reign in five years. Klingenberg has started all 16 matches she’s played in this season, registering three assists and leading a defense that has contributed to the Thorns’ league-leading +13 goal differential.
A win on the road means so much more.🎥Highlights from tonight’s rivalry win: pic.twitter.com/2Ch6anxSVM— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) June 4, 2023
A win on the road means so much more.🎥Highlights from tonight’s rivalry win: pic.twitter.com/2Ch6anxSVM
“I think once we start putting pressure on ourselves, we play tight, we play a little bit scared, and I don’t want our team to play that way,” the 2015 World Cup champion says. “I want our team to play free, I want them to have fun, play with joy, and when we do that, we play at our best.
“I think sometimes people like to — from the outside — like to make it feel like it’s a bigger deal than it really is,” she goes on. “But when it comes down to it, it’s 11 players vs. 11 players on the same size pitch, with the same refs, with the same ball every single game. And the only thing that changes about it is how you think about it.”
Even when focused on the task at hand, Klingenberg still enjoys the larger storytelling involved. Part of the history of the Cascadia rivalry, beyond regional grudges, is a story of two clubs consistently battling for trophies. The Reign are the current owners of the NWSL Shield and the Thorns are the reigning NWSL champions, and both clubs have had larger-than-life icons of the game pass through their organizations over the years.
“I think something that’s very overlooked in this league is that we have kept the core of our players together over the eight years that I’ve been here,” says Klingenberg, also crediting the Reign, who famously have their own trio of original players from the NWSL’s inaugural season. “I think that type of chemistry and those types of cultures get overlooked in a league that is always just looking for results and always just looking for the next best thing.”
While the benefits of a steady approach have paid clear dividends on the field for both teams, it also strengthens the connection fans feel toward each team and to the intensity with which they play against each other.
“If it’s a different crop of players every year that we play Seattle, who really cares?” Klingenberg says. “Because you’re not creating any villains, you’re not creating any heroes, and I think that definitely plays into the storytelling big time for the fans and for the media.”
The Thorns have their own titans of the rivalry, most notably Christine Sinclair, who has been with Portland since the team’s inception and who scored the game-clincher against the Reign earlier this season. There’s also Reign and U.S. women’s national team legend Megan Rapinoe, enters Saturday’s showdown only a handful of games away from retirement.
In the mind of a Thorns player, even that of a close friend like Klingenberg, Rapinoe will be just another rival player they’ll seek to neutralize.
“From a significance point of a friend, I’m incredibly proud and happy for Pinoe to have this type of sendoff, and I hope we really f—k it up this weekend,” she says. From that perspective: “We don’t give a f—k that Megan Rapinoe is coming to town and it’s her last game.”
In the same sentence, Klingenberg likens her longtime friend to players like Colin Kaepernick and Muhammad Ali, as an athlete who has transcended her sport and will continue to influence all genders for years to come.
“We haven’t had a player like [that] in the league or on the national team before,” she says.
It’s with the respect of a rival that Klingenberg considers the boos and jeers a part of the passion for the game, and she imagines Rapinoe will feel the same.
“I also hope that she enjoys the amount of jeering and the energy that everybody’s going to bring to this,” she says.
When the first whistle blows on Saturday, Klingenberg isn’t going to be thinking about boos or cheers, or even about wanting to beat a close rival.
“It’s more just a total feeling of gratefulness and being totally content,” she says. “And just being like, ‘This is it, this is why I play, this is so much fun. I get to be out here in a big game with my teammates, with people I really, truly care about and love, and get to do something that I’m incredibly passionate about in front of fans that are just as passionate as I am.’
“I mean, that’s a moment, that’s the moment to look around and just be like, ‘Wow, this is what I’m doing. I can’t believe I’m still doing this, and I get to do this again.’”
True to form, the message for her teammates isn’t going to be the same as it is for the fans. And when she’s asked for a tagline for Portland’s raucous crowd, Klingenberg keeps it short.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.