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Thorns sponsors and fans show support for players in semifinal win

(Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

Portland Thorns players took the field Sunday after a heavy three weeks. The franchise featured prominently in the Sally Yates report on systemic abuse in the NWSL released at the start of the month.

Players asked for fan support even as calls for Merritt Paulson to sell the team increased. Many of the team’s sponsors pulled or threatened to pull dollars from the team.

The balance between support for the players and criticism of ownership could be seen Sunday as 22,035 people turned out in support of the Thorns – the second-largest crowd in NWSL playoff history. Ahead of the game, the Rose City Riveters fan group hosted a rally to cheer for players as they arrived.

“This is the Portland soccer community,” Gabby Rosas, president of the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, told The Oregonian. “You put the call out that says the players need to feel support, and people show up. That’s never been in question this entire time over the last year. It’s always been about supporting the players, but it’s how do you balance that with calling for accountability from the leaders who are in place? I think that’s been the complexity of the situation.

“We’re angry, yes, but we can come at that in different ways. When we are engaging with the players, it’s important that they know we’re not going anywhere.”

The players reflected that support right back to the fans, as Crystal Dunn sent home a stoppage time winner against the San Diego Wave to put Portland back into the NWSL Championship for the first time since 2018.

“It’s a new dawn,” Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson said. “The players needed it. They needed to see that they’re loved.”

Even amid the fanfare, though, the match also featured calls for change from both fans and sponsors sprinkled throughout the stadium.

Outside of Providence Park, a “For Sale” sign was hung on a sculpture, while inside the stadium fans held up signs of their own calling for the sale of the team. While Paulson has stepped back as CEO of the Thorns, he has not committed to selling the Thorns or the MLS’ Portland Timbers.

Signage around the stadium from sponsors also indicated mounting pressure for the Thorns front office. While some sponsors have threatened to pull their dollars if the team doesn’t make changes, others already have redirected their funds to go directly to the players.

“We stand with the players,” wrote signs from sponsors Laurelwood Brewing Co., Toyota and Jamba Juice.

Other sponsors, including SeatGeek, had signage reading, “To the players, we have your backs,” or other similar sentiments.

As those players shift their focus to Saturday’s final against the Kansas City Current at Audi Field in Washington, there’s just one thing on their minds.

“We have to win it this year,” Dunn said. “We’ve gone through so much.”