While the rest of the world remains indifferent to women’s professional leagues, Portland Thorns fans “support the girls in red until we’re fucking dead.”
Match time nears, the August night bears all the trappings of one of those big fixtures: The streets around the stadium swarmed by fans in colors and kit, burly cops, pleading scalpers, an ad hoc band wheezing a club song. As supporters fill the terraces inside, flags blossom along the stadium’s north end, domain of the loudest, the most committed, with just a touch of St. Pauli-ish punk swagger. Red flags. Black flags. Rainbow flags. As the squads come out, a lone trumpet cues a churning version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”When the Thorns go marching in / When the Thorns go marching in / Oh how I want to be in Rose City / When the Thorns go marching in.
The local side is deep in a tense late-season race, all hope of retaining last season’s championship honors riding on victory over the bottom-table away club. Just to ratchet up the pressure, the home XI is something of a super-club, featuring a sharp Spanish playmaker at the tip of midfield and a pair of iconic international strikers.
As the Portland Thorns and Houston Dash get under way, then, the atmosphere has the edge and expectation one might find on a big club night anywhere in the world. This is Providence Park, in the center of Portland, Oregon. Two years before, neither the home side nor its opponent—nor, indeed, their league itself—existed. And the players are women.
Which—sad, but true—makes the scene and the chants in the stadium rare in the football world, if not unique. In Portland and the Thorns, the embryonic National Women’s Soccer League, a last-ditch effort to save the women’s professional game in North America, has something women’s football has traditionally lacked: a true club, with the culture of support to match. The question, two years or so in, is whether this club will be the only one.
In Germany, the women’s Bundesliga set an attendance record in 2014: an average 1,185 spectators per match. In England, meanwhile, the FA Women’s Super League saw average gates rise from 562 to 728. In Japan, a World Cup win in 2011 stirred up some bumper domestic crowds, but the Nadeshiko League still draws, on average, fewer than 2,000 per match. In France, Olympique Lyonnais, perhaps the most successful women’s club in history, hosts most of their games in a stadium that seats 2,200.
There are, of course, many sides to women’s football, from booming grassroots to summer 2015’s World Cup gala in Canada to Sepp Blatter’s predictably unfortunate views on player attire. But the women’s club game is, to be blunt, effectively nowhere. In general, female sides attract no significant constituency and often exist at the fringes of established (i.e., male) clubs, connected to famous names like Arsenal and Barcelona by frail threads of branding and co-sponsorship.
The United States—with women’s access to sport enshrined in federal law and a public that has, at times, embraced the women’s national team as pop-culture icons—was supposed to be the exception. The country’s smash-hit World Cup in 1999 inspired the Women’s United Soccer Association, billed as the world’s first fully professional women’s league. It lasted three seasons. Its successor, Women’s Professional Soccer, also played three seasons before collapsing in January 2012. Soon thereafter, Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation, called Merritt Paulson, the ambitious owner of Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers. “The timing was not great for us,” recalls Paulson, the 42-year-old son of a former U.S. treasury secretary who steered the Timbers from obscurity in the lower divisions to become one of MLS’s model franchises. “The women’s club game was 0-2. We were coming off a rough season with the Timbers, when we’d fired our coach, and I was focused on getting that right. But I also recognized that if it couldn’t work here, it couldn’t work anywhere.”
Gulati, for his part, had a new business model: the federations of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico would subsidize the salaries of their internationals in the new National Women’s Soccer League. An allocation system would ensure marquee talent in every market. The USSF president hoped to lure Paulson to create, unofficially but obviously, the league’s flagship club—the only charter member, of eight, affiliated with an MLS operation.
Paulson had good reasons to jump in. Since ascending to MLS in 2011, the Timbers had tapped into Portland’s remarkable (for this continent) culture of football support, capitalizing on the club’s feisty, anarchic but well-organized core support, the Timbers Army. (The Army began in the early 2000s as a few dozen people standing behind a goal at lower-division matches; it now fills an entire terrace at the 20,000-seat Providence Park.) Every home match sells out, and club paraphernalia plasters the city.
“There are 10,000 people on the waiting list for Timbers season tickets,” Paulson notes. The owner—an intensely competitive character, prone to Twitter feuds and other spikes of public enthusiasm—is also methodically building a concept: a vertically integrated soccer operation, anchored by the MLS side. The Timbers’ youth academy has grown rapidly, and the club has launched spin-off U-23 and reserve franchises. “We view all our teams as living under the same football umbrella,” Paulson says. “We have a blueprint for how we want all our teams to play, and a technical system that we apply across the board.”
Convinced that federation subsidy and a willing market equaled a reasonable gamble, Paulson and the Timbers organization devised Portland Thorns FC to leverage the Timbers’ growing brand equity. Supporters’ signature “PT! FC!” chant would be cross-compatible, and the new club would plug into existing sales and marketing efforts. The new league allocated the promised eye-catching talent, in particular United States striker Alex Morgan—striker/sex symbol, one could say, after various cheerful bikini-and-less-clad magazine shoots—and ruthless Canadian forward Christine Sinclair. Known for epic clashes as international rivals, the two goal scorers provide the closest thing the women’s game has to household names.
The club also discarded the failed strategies of WUSA and WPS. Both failed leagues tried to reconstitute the stereotypical, squeaky-clean legion of aspiring preteen girls and wholesome soccer families forged in the 1999 World Cup. The Thorns would seek a different mix.
“We said very clearly that this is not a product strictly for soccer moms and daughters,” Paulson says. “We want those folks at the game, but as part of a broader community. This is a football club. We’ve got the strongest urban soccer culture in America. That’s what we’re marketing to. We also discovered many people who were totally new—they’re not fans of the Timbers, they’re Thorns fans—so it’s proved to be very important that it’s not the Timbers. The club crest is up on the side of the stadium, the same size as the Timbers’ crest. It’s not a side project. It is as full-on as we can make it.”
In the inaugural 2013 NWSL season, the league averaged 4,271 fans per match. The Thorns averaged 13,320. In the second season—as often happens with sporting start-ups—league-wide crowds declined slightly. The Thorns’ support remained almost exactly the same, with a dramatic peak in that late-season match against Houston, an NWSL record and the 10th biggest women’s club soccer crowd ever.
An average gate as large as those of the next four league clubs combined seems to vindicate Paulson’s efforts so far. Another apparent success, though linked to ticket sales, is more subtle but perhaps as crucial: The Thorns look to be shaping up into a real football club—or, at any rate, as much of one as a side with a six-month fixture list can be.
“People in the community obviously wanted a women’s soccer team, but it’s just as important that the club is run properly,” says Christine Sinclair. “We’re treated as professionals. We play and train at world-class facilities. We’re treated like soccer players.”
This is, unfortunately, not as basic as it sounds, even for players of Sinclair’s pedigree. Except for the subsidized North American internationals and a few other marquee players, NWSL players work for part-time wages. Some make as little as $6,000 in a season, and many hold second jobs. Most league clubs play at tiny stadiums. The oddly named Sky Blue FC, ostensibly the league’s New York franchise, calls 5,000-seat-capacity Yurcak Field at Rutgers home, and the 2014 champions, FC Kansas City, play at a 3,200-seater in a municipal park.
“In a lot of cities we visit,” Thorns midfielder Mana Shim says, “it’s very evident that we’re playing for the love of the sport.”
That’s why major-league trappings—a big, modern, downtown stadium, full-service changing rooms, actual supporters—matter. “You try not to let stuff like that have any effect on you on the field, of course,” Sinclair says. “But it does affect you. Going out to play in front of 15,000 fans at Providence Park is much different than going out to play in front of 1,700 people at what’s basically a high school stadium. You want to do the city proud.”
Midfielder Angie Kerr, who retired after the 2014 Thorns season, put it like this: “Some of the places we show up, the locker room is a tiny little box under the stands, sometimes without AC, sometimes without showers. You’re afraid to touch the floor. Here, there are places to put your things, you know?”
In many ways, Shim is the player for whom this league was created. Despite excellent high school and college careers, the Hawaiian midfielder was without a club when she made the Thorns as a trialist in 2013. If not for the NWSL, she’d likely be playing in amateur obscurity. As it is, by late in the 2014 season she disestablished herself in the XI and emerged as a still-developing talent and a fan favorite in a city, perhaps more than any other, where the women’s side has achieved a public profile.
“It’s the only situation I’ve seen where women’s professional soccer feels like professional soccer,” Shim says. “We love seeing the people in their 20s and 30s come out and have a few beers and get rowdy. I mean, that’s what professional sports is supposed to be. It’s entertainment and it’s a social event. That’s what we envision for our sport, but this is just about the only place where it’s been realized so far.”
The popular and cultural passion Shim’s talking about boils out of Providence Park’s North End—the traditional home of the Timbers Army, taken over during Thorns matches by a separate posse called the Riveters. Essentially founded when a 13-year-old fan decided a newly minted women’s side needed a supporters group, the Riveters took advantage of the Army’s existing infrastructure to get their own merchandise, tifo, and away support operations up and running. But the Thorns’ core support is adamant about both independence and projecting a distinct brand of aggro within the sport.
“There’s significant crossover, but I think in years to come we’ll see more folks who are more deeply committed to the Thorns than to the Timbers step into leadership positions,”says Kirsten Gehrke, the Riveters’ volunteer spokeswoman. “Portland is unique in U.S. women’s soccer, in that most of the sport’s supporters nationwide would likely fall into the country-over-club category. Portland skews club over country. We don’t bow down to U.S. women’s national team players playing for other teams. That’s been a shock to people.”
The supporters are, in other words, as determined as the players and the organization to create a club culture, common in men’s top-flight football but almost unknown in the women’s game. “When we go to other cities, a substantial number of people will be there just to see Alex Morgan,” Mana Shim says. “They root against their hometown team to cheer for her. That’s just unimaginable here.”
And so it is, on that August night against the Houston Dash, that chants of “Shoot her like a horse” cascade down on rival players when they suffer a rugged challenge, followed by “We’ll support the girls in red / Until we’re fucking dead.” Despite a complex choreography of swapping sides and taking turns dropping off or pulling wide, Sinclair and Morgan find the even frustratingly fallow. Early in the second half, however, Vero Boquete, the Spanish international running the Thorns’ diamond midfield, finishes the match winner from a scything run. Red smoke pours from North End, where a rainbow-mohawked capo waves a gigantic skull-and-crossbones flag. This night in Portland, women’s soccer feels like it might be headed to a bold new place.
“I think the big takeaway from the Thorns so far is that it’s not impossible,” Merritt Paulson says. “There are skeptics who say that the women’s club game will always be a fringe deal. Well, we draw crowds that many men’s club teams would love to draw.
“If the federation subsidies went away tomorrow, it would still be sustainable for us. But I think it would be hard for others. Right now, part of being the Thorns is being a beacon that says, All right, this is the way to go. Can you do it a year? No. Can you do it in five years? I think so. But you need to have the right operation behind you.”
In the meantime, Portland is the club the other NWSL operations—and women’s club soccer around the world—must be measured against. That can be a problem, but it’s a good one to have. “Everyone wants to come to Portland to play, whether for us or against us,” says Tobin Heath, a U.S. international and Thorns midfielder. “It’s ironic, in a way—we get everyone’s best away performance, because they’re so up for it. They will play their best match of the season against us. But that’s what you want.”
Zach Dundas is the Executive Editor of Portland Monthly, and author of The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes. Follow him on Twitter at @zachdundas.
This article originally appeared in issue 05 of Eight by Eight. Subscriptions and single issues are available now in our shop.