National Women's Soccer League hopes to replicate Portland's success
PORTLAND, Ore. --
The fans in Portland love their Timbers, filling Providence Park with a roaring wall of green. There are few places like it in American soccer. Yet, on a recent summer night, Providence Park was awash not in green, but scarlet, the color of the local women's side, the Thorns. And in 90 minutes, the Rose City Riveters led a record-setting crowd of 19,123 through a journey unparalleled in the NWSL or any other. They chanted and sang. They supported earnestly and willingly. They swung their scarves in the air. They urged their team forward to its critical 1-0 victory over Houston.
"This is great," NWSL commissioner Cheryl Bailey said at halftime. "You have something like this, and you have the ability to dream of what all nine markets would be if they had something like this out there."
Everywhere is not Portland, though. The sheer number of fans packed into this historic stadium dwarfs the usual gathering for every other team in the league, but it is the passion within the congregation that truly distinguishes them. They do not just show up to enjoy the evening. They turn out in force to back their side.
"These are the best fans in the whole world," Thorns goalkeeper and reigning FIFA Women's World Player of the Year Nadine Angerer said. "Seriously, I don't know another club in the world with fans like this. There were just German reporters, media guys here. They were like, 'What is this here?' I was like, 'Welcome to Portland.' They were so surprised."
Their shock stemmed from some hard realities in the women's game. There are few, if any, communities willing to back their sides to this extent. Crowds are usually counted in three or four figures. The revenues are modest, and the clubs survive from week-to-week and month-to-month. Swedish powerhouse Tyreso FF -- once home to Thorns schemer Vero Boquete, Brazilian playmaker Marta and United States internationals Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg and Christen Press -- underscored the point by playing in the UEFA Champions League final in May and then declaring bankruptcy in June.
America has also seen bust times in the women's game: The NWSL is the third attempt to form a viable league after the collapse of both the WUSA and WPS. WUSA failed after losing $100 million; WPS folded after an acrimonious legal battle with a team owner. The NWSL has a fairly different model: It is directly funded by the American, Canadian and Mexican soccer federations, and the hope is that it will develop players for their national teams. It is also fairly austere.
The NWSL will host its playoffs later this month, and it enters the post-season with some of the same concerns that bedeviled its predecessors. Attendance remains a headache in other markets with Portland usually drawing in the low five figures (and sharing some of its wealth) while all the others are stretching to hit 5,000 or so. The quality of play continues to improve, but there is a noticeable gap between the top players and those tapped to fill out the ranks. There is also vast disparity between the clubs and the quality of their facilities: Houston and Portland are well ahead of the rest due to sharing infrastructures with MLS clubs. And then there is the 2015 Women's World Cup, which will take place smack in the middle of the NWSL's next season.
Each of those issues creates some cause for concern, but the league's existence for a second year and the noticeable presence of household names like Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach provides hope for the future nevertheless. There are investors interested in expansion, while the arrival of Houston this season strengthened the league considerably. The footing -- particularly with the World Cup ahead next year -- is firming up a bit before 2015.
"I think it feels good," Bailey said. "This is the first [women's] league that had all of the original teams come back in year two. That was a big step. In addition, we added a team with Houston. Already, we've set a groundwork that is different than the past two leagues, which is exciting. I think we feel good about year three and where we are going to go."
There is no worrying about the destination in Portland. It exists here already. This night sketched out the blueprint for everything NWSL will hope to attain elsewhere in the coming years. It won't be easy, though. As Angerer noted and this record-breaking crowd highlighted, there isn't anywhere else in the world quite like this.