It’s a secret that’s in plain sight: The best women’s soccer in the world is being played right now in the United States—and I’m not talking about the U.S. Women’s National Team. The National Women’s Soccer League—round three of women’s pro soccer here—not only has the best domestic talent, but also draws premier players from across the world.
If we export most of our best men, we keep our best women.
When you glance down the list of U.S. Men’s National Team players, 13 of them play for international clubs.
Not U.S. Women’s National Team players, who will be showcasing their talents at the Women’s World Cup next year in Canada. Every one of the USWNT players—not to mention the majority of Canada’s Women’s National Team—plays in the U.S., along with dozens of other star players from around the globe. This is intentional on the part of the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican national teams, who handle the salaries of their top players in the NWSL.
And Providence Park in Portland, Oregon, where the Portland Thorns play, is the women’s soccer epicenter.
Sometimes it seems that in Portland, we’re a bunch of kids who—through the inevitable angst and awkwardness of our high school years—never lost our innocence. We play dodge ball, ride giant tricycles, and craft homespun jalopies for the adult soapbox derby. We don’t have NFL football, MLB baseball, or NHL hockey, and we probably never will.
We’re the perfect city for soccer, especially women’s soccer.
The fanaticism of soccer suits us. The gender equity of women on the pitch suits us. The beer suits us. Our collective unconscious in Portland had been waiting for women’s soccer for a long time.
In P-Town we’re serious about our Thorns: The team’s regular-season attendance during last year’s inaugural NWSL season outpaced eight Major League Soccer men’s teams (2013 average: over 13,000 fans).
And where else can you get a ticket to see world-class talent in a world-class atmosphere for under 15 bucks?
It’s unimaginable to find a power lineup like the Thorns in Major League Soccer: four U.S. Women’s National Team players (Tobin Heath, Allie Long, Alex Morgan, and Rachel Van Hollebeke), as well as players from the national teams of Australia, Canada, Germany, and Spain, including the Canadian, German, and Spanish captains (Christine Sinclair, Nadine Angerer, and Vero Boquete, respectively). And the roster is topped off with fan favorites like Meleana Shim and Jessica McDonald. Pride tells me we have the best squad, but teams across the league are bursting at the gills with concentrated levels of U.S. and international talent that are hard for any other professional league to match.
What makes women’s soccer truly amazing here in Soccer City, however, are the fans. Led by the Rose City Riveters support group, the fans make the stadium come alive every game. We come in the rain; we don’t leave when our team is down; we chant through the entire match.
In a midseason game versus the Western New York Flash, the Thorns went down to 10 players on a red card against goalie Nadine Angerer in the first 17 minutes. With the Thorns already behind 0–1, backup goalie Michelle Betos came in on a PK, and the score went to 0–2. Within the next few minutes the score was 0–3. The Thorns couldn’t seem to string together good passes. At each turn toward misery, the crowd support got louder, and more deafening. Thorns fans were on their feet—voices were being lost. Final score: 0–5.
The ardent, fiery Rose City Riveters get the credit for pulling Portland up by its suspender straps, and showing the NWSL what women’s soccer support really means, in a raucous, hops-infused, eardrum-shattering way that no other place in the world is able to give women athletes on a regular basis. The Riveters boast capos (chant leaders), tifos (giant club-support banners), drums, brass, and flags. Riveters log hundreds of hours making the banners that drape the stadium throughout the season. (Read this post about the 2014 home-opener tifo, and get inspired.)
Players have said that in women’s soccer, the atmosphere in Portland is rivaled only by Women’s World Cup. This is the support that women’s soccer deserves.
When you go to a game, it’s not just youth soccer clubs and lesbians in the stands. There are lines out the door for the men’s bathrooms. Thorns support is for everyone, and there are no pastel colors or condescending cursive.
The worldwide energy for soccer right now is intoxicating, and many of us have been World Cup zombies since June 12. Watching the American support in the stands has been almost as exhilarating as watching the play. Our fans are finally crazy, like every other nation’s fans. The men finally have a homegrown support base that can go horn-to-horn with any country.
Now it’s time to up the profile of the women’s game.
Portland will always support the Thorns with classic Cascadian zeal. But we need other franchises to build successful support for their squads. We are Rose-City-till-we-die, and without a league we can’t keep singing our 1,000 songs to our girls in red.
We also need ESPN to apply their model for men’s soccer coverage to the women’s game. Although the network plans on airing upcoming Thorns games on ESPN2, their pulse on the NWSL has been barely beating, and I’m worried that next year—with both the NWSL and Women’s World Cup—will be the same.
Portland shouldn’t be an aberration: Our U.S. women players, who are widely adored and more successful than the men on the international stage, deserve media who pay attention and cities that show up to make deafening noise.
Watch Thorns upcoming matches versus Boston (July 20) and Houston (August 3) on ESPN2; and while you’re at it, tweet to @ESPN and @espnW to start covering the National Women’s Soccer League soccer online.
Evelyn Shoop is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. Tweet her at @EvelynShoop. Find her online at evelynshoop.com.