PORTLAND, Ore. -- It wasn't the largest crowd ever to watch a professional women's soccer game in this country, but it was the largest crowd that knew what it signed up for.
The 25,218 people who filled Providence Park on Sunday afternoon to watch the Portland Thorns play the North Carolina Courage, the largest crowd in NWSL history and second largest in any of three attempts at a domestic league, weren't there for what women's soccer could be. They weren't there for the potential.
They came because a game between these two teams matters.
They weren't here to celebrate the World Cup that the United States won last month. They came because the NWSL Shield, handed out to the regular season's best team, is very much up for grabs, with Portland taking the lead after Sunday's 2-1 comeback win. Not to mention the trophy to be handed out at the conclusion of the playoffs.
With rosters across the league finally at full strength after a summer of comings and goings, the race to the finish is on in the NWSL. That finish has never mattered more. The league has never mattered more. Which is why every team in the league is trying to figure out how to be the best version of itself.
"The team that integrates their World Cup players and their international players and whomever else best throughout July and throughout August," Portland's Meghan Klingenberg said before the game, "is going to be the team that comes out on top at the end of the season."
It took North Carolina all of four minutes to find at least some chemistry between those who have been around all summer and the newly returned. The reigning NWSL player of the month, Kristen Hamilton, chased down a Lynn Williams pass that pulled her wide on the right side. Hamilton's cross from the end line caromed off a charging Williams in front of goal, Portland defenders slower to react than Williams, and fell to Crystal Dunn's feet. The defense again a step slow to react, Dunn had an extra beat to settle her feet and send the ball into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.
Dunn spent much of the summer, of course, focused on denying goals rather than scoring them, playing outside back for the U.S. throughout the World Cup. But her return to North Carolina, interrupted last week by the opening game of the U.S. victory tour, meant pivoting back to the attacking role that she has filled so well throughout her NWSL career.
"It's day by day," Dunn said this weekend. "For me, there's some good days and some bad days. But I think that's just what comes with it. I always think I am fit for the job. My career has always allowed me to embrace that role, but it's not easy. It takes a week, maybe two weeks -- hopefully not more than that."
It might be less pronounced for others, but that's the adjustment that most World Cup players are making as they return to the league, where they rarely play an identical role. That was certainly the case for Portland's Adrianna Franch, who didn't play a minute as the third goalkeeper for the U.S. in the World Cup but Sunday faced a barrage of 20 shots en route to 10 saves.
On the other side of that equation, the players left to mind the fort during the summer have grown accustomed to life without those players on the national team. Go back to the opening goal and the role Hamilton played. It was fitting that she helped set up Dunn, because much as Dunn seized her opportunity to shine during a World Cup year in 2015, Hamilton has made as much of this summer as any player in the league -- her player of the month honors evidence of that.
"I think you can attribute where she stands to the World Cup," North Carolina coach Paul Riley said. "She might not have got that opportunity had Jess been there the whole time. It worked in her favor. This is a life-changing, career-changing thing that can happen in the World Cup, and it's changed her career, I think. She'll go on to bigger and better things."
The same goes for Portland's Midge Purce. It wasn't a coincidence that after the Thorns looked discombobulated through long stretches of the first half, the tide turned when Purce and Australian World Cup returnee Hayley Raso entered the game as halftime substitutes. The goal that leveled the game at 1-1 was officially an own goal, bouncing in off North Carolina keeper Steph Labbe in the 56th minute. But it was Purce, challenging for the ball, who was responsible for the traffic that knocked Labbe off balance as she jumped to go after Elizabeth Ball's cross.
Dunn's coach with the Washington Spirit in 2015, current Portland coach Mark Parsons, said he envisioned a similar role for Purce this season -- that she would play out wide in the early going and then take over the No. 9 role as the team's striker when World Cup duty decimated the roster. Now the World Cup stars are back and Purce still looks mighty comfortable in the that role.
"Midge has done a great job of grabbing the game by the neck and not letting go -- and I mean that in the most positive way," Klingenberg said. "I don't think that Midge scores or assists every game, but she causes havoc for the other team. And because she causes havoc, it allows our other players to get on the ball and produce goals. So even if she isn't getting in on the action, she's still making her mark. That's the mark of a really sophisticated player. I think that Midge didn't have that last year, but since she was able to get those minutes ... and develop into the player that she is, that she's really done a great job making herself indispensable."
The challenge for the weeks to come is fitting all of those pieces together, ensuring Dunn and Hamilton have chemistry together or that Purce reads Tobin Heath and Christine Sinclair well.
That cohesion wasn't there Sunday, not for all 90 minutes. Both teams scrambled, with the game not decided until after a second North Carolina own goal and a series of last-ditch saves from Franch.
Considering a loss would have dropped the Thorns off the pace set by North Carolina and Chicago, with the top two finishers in the regular season earning the right to host semifinals, Sunday's result was especially valuable for the hosts. But the result was only the short-term objective. Building for October is the bigger goal.
"When we see consistent high-level performance with results, I think that's when you can say it's there," Parsons said. "Because we have the talent, we have everything we need to succeed. When things are clicking, we're rolling. ... We're getting there slowly. I hope [we get there] very, very soon. If in the next week everything came together perfectly, great.
"But I predict there's a few more games like this where it's wild, it's chaos."
The only game in a women's pro league that outdrew Sunday's contest was the very first game in the WUSA, the first attempt at a pro league that launched in 2001 in the afterglow of the 1999 World Cup. People showed up then because of what they hoped women's soccer could become.
They showed up Sunday because, certainly in this soccer-mad city, women's soccer became that.
It became a place where the title the Thorns and Courage chase isn't merely an afterthought.
"I feel like the league, in and of itself, is so important," North Carolina's Sam Mewis said. "It's a place for so many people to play. I don't feel like it has to be a feeder league for the national team anymore. I think being in the NWSL is a huge deal. A lot of times that gets overlooked when you don't get into the national team, because I feel like that is a goal for everybody.
"But I kind of want to start looking at the NWSL as totally separate. And playing [in the league], that's what people want to do."