PORTLAND, Ore. — The crowd decked out in red and black sways between elation and disappointment as the seconds tick away. Voices rise when the hometown Portland Thorns take possession of the ball, and heavy sighs spread through the crowd of close to 19,000 when they turn it over. The Thorns have mostly dominated the match versus the visiting Orlando Pride, and yet a draw looms in the first National Women’s Soccer League game broadcast under a new agreement with ESPN. The afternoon sun that had soaked much of the stadium has given way to shade, but the sweat and sunburns are nothing compared to the stomach knots of an unexpected tie.
In stoppage time, the Thorns have a corner kick. The crowd gets loud, chanting P.T! clap clap! F.C! clap clap! and the claps and stomps ricochet around the stadium. Photographers on the sidelines ready themselves to capture what will, in some way, be a key moment in the game. Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg kicks the ball in, sailing it toward the collection of players running toward the net. The crowd keeps chanting, as if claps and stomps could help guide a ball into the back of the net.
I hold my breath for a second and bite my lip, nervous for a team I had first adopted as my own two hours ago. I pitched coming to the first Thorns game after the U.S. Women’s National Team World Cup victory as a straightforward sports story about the energy going forward around women’s club soccer. But nothing is so simple with women’s sports. The politics around our bodies and lives don’t end when we enter the arena or a put on a uniform. Sitting in the stands, what I felt most was the lingering shock that any of this was happening at all.
Going to a Thorns game to take the temperature of women’s club soccer is like going to an Alabama game to take the temperature of college football. The Thorns are easily among the successful women’s club teams, as measured by attendance (a league-leading average of close to 17,000 fans last season) and wins (they’ve won two NWSL championships). They have ownership that makes smart soccer moves, and a downtown stadium that was renovated to be a proper soccer pitch. This is not Sky Blue FC, which in 2018 had players living in housing with a leaky roof and didn’t provide showers for players to use after games. This is not the Pride, which is somehow tied for last in the NWSL despite having one of the best strikers in the world in Alex Morgan and one of the most important players in history in Marta. Earlier this year, the Guardian asked if the Thorns are “the ideal template for a women’s football club.”
But this was the first game since the USWNT snagged its second consecutive and fourth overall World Cup trophy, sending the team members off on a dizzying media tour that included Anderson Cooper, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Good Morning America, and in a single day floating through Manhattan in a ticker-tape parade then heading to L.A. to collect an ESPY for best team. From there, the same question as after every dominant World Cup performance by the USWNT started creeping up: Will more fans start showing up at women’s soccer games?
I had planned to be in Portland this past weekend anyway to visit my best friend, Dawn, and the soccer powers that be still haven’t figured out how to get a women’s team in my current home of Los Angeles—even though it’s the second-largest city in America and supports two men’s teams, which says a lot about the people overseeing soccer in the United States. So the Thorns game, scheduled for the Sunday right after the World Cup ended, was my best chance to see competitive women’s club soccer live this year. Dawn agreed to come with me, making this her first ever pro soccer game. I asked her if she wanted to tag along, and Dawn replied by asking if this was the sport “that included the woman who said fuck Trump?” I said yes. She said, “I’m in.”
We take a bus to the game, and about half the people on it are wearing the Thorns’ red and black, the same colors as the city’s NBA team, the Portland Trail Blazers. While we all wait, I ask one older couple if they’re heading to the game. The woman says yes, and tells me is their very first game. She wasn’t sure of the colors so she looked them up online and made a red-and-black necklace out of what she had at home. Another woman wears a Thorns shirt and scarf. Figuring she’s a longtime fan, I ask her what to expect. She tells me to expect a very different vibe than at a Timbers game, and for the crowd to be very pumped post-World Cup, even though the USWNT members aren’t back yet.
As the bus lurches closer through traffic, a young man sitting across from us leans forward and asks if I know which stop is for the Thorns. I tell him I have no idea but following the people dressed in red and black seemed like a good enough strategy. When the bus arrives, the driver announces over the intercom, “After the light, the next stop is the Timbers match! After the light, the next stop is the Timbers match,” her enthusiasm cracking through the speakers. I decide the sentiment is enough.
Dawn and I get there a little late because we couldn’t fit on the first bus that came. The stadium is surrounded by fans in black and red, with lines running 10-to-20 people deep. We dash to our seats maneuvering through the crowded walkways while the players’ names are announced. The loudest roar was for Thorns star and Canadian soccer legend Christine Sinclair, though I suspect it would have been for Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath, had they been there. Inside the supporters section, the Rose City Riveters, are waving flags and chanting. In front of me a fan sports a 2017 Thorns championship roster shirt, and behind me someone is explaining to another person how the game will work. There’s clamor and noise, the faint smell of hot dogs, and soon afterward our own sweat. We all turn our match preview cards into fans.
There’s a warmup video for the crowd, showing highlights of various great play, set to Beyoncé’s “Run The World (Girls).” Amid all the traditions associated with professional sports, I think about the first time I went to a women’s club soccer game, eight years ago on a humid night in Boca Raton, Florida. The first time I thought that change was coming, a notion I was swiftly disabused of.
I’m old enough to be familiar with the post–World Cup narrative for women’s soccer in America: A huge performance by the USWNT, a triumphant return home, and pundits asking, “Will this finally bring fans to women’s soccer?” in a tone implying that said pundits expect no fans to show up, in which case they will blame the fans because it’s easiest to blame the fans.
In 2011, the U.S. lost the World Cup on penalties to Japan, a heartbreaking end to a magical run that included coming from behind in a quarterfinal against Brazil thanks to an arcing pass from Megan Rapinoe, to Abby Wambach, who headed in a goal to tie the game in the 122nd minute. That forced penalty kicks, and Ali Krieger sliced her penalty kick into the far left corner to win. Despite the eventual loss in the final, the deep run and bevy of YouTube-ready highlights seemed like the perfect launching pad for the NSWL’s precursor, Women’s Professional Soccer.
At the time I lived in Fort Lauderdale and could easily drive 30 minutes north to Boca Raton to see Wambach’s team play. And I was, in theory, its target audience: Young, female, and a big soccer fan.
Perhaps everything you need to know about the WPS’s collapse is that the team was named magicJack, note “the” lowercase “m.” They were named after a device you used to make phone calls over the internet. Why? Because the guy who invented it owned the team. Despite the ridiculous name, at the time, magicJack was among the more popular clubs in the league. It helped that the club’s stacked roster included USWNT stars Rapinoe, Christie Rampone, Hope Solo, Shannon Boxx, and Wambach. Wambach also at one point served as the team coach because the owner, Dan Borislow, was banned from the sideline after the players union filed a complaint saying he had violated multiple rules.
Here’s what I remember from that night, at the first magicJack home game after the World Cup. First, realizing that one of the best soccer players in the entire world was playing her club games at Florida Atlantic University’s field, complete with collegiate-level lighting, a collegiate-level field, and the entire crowd on metal bleachers. The light caught on all the bugs zooming through the muggy South Florida air. There must have been concessions somewhere, but if there was any signage for them I missed it.
In professional sports, there’s a certain buzz from sitting close to the field, in being that close to athletes performing at their peak. This felt too close. Wambach, one of the best players in the world, who would retire with more international goals than any other woman, was playing on a Division I college field. Her fans—and there were so many fans—sat on those bleachers and, being so young, at first glance you could mistake this for a popular high school game. If there was a public address announcer, I don’t recall it. Whatever trappings you expect from a soccer match—the supporters section, the club scarves, the board with intricate graphics telling you what is going on—it wasn’t there.
Afterward, I couldn’t bring myself to go to another game. It was too depressing. I’m sure this made me a bad fan, a bad supporter, a bad woman, a bad feminist. But then, as now, I found insulting the idea that women are supposed to be happy, if not giddy and downright thankful, when given the bare minimum. Abby Wambach deserved better, regardless of if I showed up or not, because she’s Abby Wambach.
Within a year there would be legal dueling between the WPS and club owner Borislow, leading to the disbanding of magicJack. In 2013, the league folded.
I’ve brought my best friend to a barnstormer of a game. Thorns forward Hayley Raso scores a goal just three minutes in, and from there the Thorns keep pressing, racking up shots and corners. At halftime the score is still 1-0, but the kind where it should be 3-0 and feels like at any moment it will be. The crowd mirrors that energy, cheering, chanting, and booing when a Thorns player gets a yellow card. There’s a small section of Pride fans, who start a “Marta!” chant when Orlando starts threatening. Thorns fans counter with their own noise. By the end of the half, the main chant is already is embedded in my brain: “PT!” clap clap “FC!”
Still, you can tell this is a shared stadium and the Timbers were here first. It’s Timbers on the boards, Timbers on the tarps. The digital ads are clearly NWSL-focused, like the flashing banner ad for the Lifetime channel.
I tell Dawn that I’m sure the Thorns will win, but I also hope that she gets to see Marta score a goal. Dawn gives me her review so far: “This is better than football.”
At halftime, I set a timer for how long the wait is for the women’s restroom, the true measure of the game’s popularity. The wait clocks in at two and a half minutes. In line, I overhear a woman behind me say, “Stop paying the men for losing. I’m just saying.” Making my way through the crowds, there’s a few people in national team shirts and jerseys, but official Thorns merchandise is the most prominent. I ask the guys working one of the food stands if the day was busier than their normal and they said yes, but only a bit.
The guts of a soccer game are pretty simple. This means that by the second half Dawn already has the gist of what’s going on and has started asking me questions that I can’t answer. (“What’s that little box for by the goalie?” “Eh, it’s for something but it rarely comes up.”)
The Thorns score another goal in the 58th minute, and it looks like the home team will cruise to victory. But while while the Thorns defend a ball a rebound lands in front of Marta and she seizes the opportunity, sending a gorgeous, high-arcing strike into the upper right corner. The Thorns respond with a Sinclair goal and then, minutes later, a shot from Marta is deflected off a Thorns player and bounces into the net. The Thorns’ lead evaporates completely when Marta gets a free kick and the clearance gets blasted into the net by the Pride’s Erin Greening. With the second half nearing a close, it’s a tie game, and in the NWSL there is no extra time in the regular season.
After watching the Thorns players dominate all day, it feels disheartening to walk away with just one point. But with stoppage time running out, the Thorns have one last chance to score on a corner kick. Meghan Klingenberg sends it in, the ball flying through the air right in front of where Tyler Lussi is running toward the goal. Lussi never breaks her stride and heads in the game winner. The stadium erupts. The red smoke billows, sending scarlet plumes dancing over the supporters section. There are high-fives and hugs and somewhere amidst all the cheering the game becomes official.
I tell Dawn how lucky she is, that her first-ever soccer game included goals by Marta and Sinclair and a highlight-ready finish. Her response, “Cool!” I ask her for her final review of the game, which goes, “It wasn’t boring. It actually moves. I like that.” While we’re talking, a woman comes up to me and, seeing my media pass, asks if I’m a team reporter. I say no, that I’m here for a sports website called Deadspin. We chat a little, and she tells me that she had followed the team before, but this was her first time coming in person.
After the game, there’s an interview with the coach and the players briefly will be available for comment. Dawn and I head over to the autograph area instead. There’s a whole setup on the side of the field with stadium staff there to make sure it doesn’t get too crazy. But even with all that, it’s still an exercise in controlled chaos because there are a lot of fans, it skews toward young girls, and they really want autographs. The most popular is Sinclair, and even from a good 20 rows up I can hear shouts of “Christine! Christine Sinclair!”
I overhear two young girls who have just gotten autographs from Sinclair saying they came all the way from Canada for the game and immediately think I have got to talk to them. They are best friends Maddy Hargreaves and Rachel Myson, both age 9, and they came about 800 miles from Airdrie, Alberta. This is their graduation present. I ask them, both clad in the team’s signature shade of red from head to toe, if they enjoyed the game, which got me a very loud, unified “YESSSSSS!!!!!!”
Sinclair is their favorite player because, as Maddy explains to me, “she works hard and she’s a beast.” Rachel agrees. I ask them for their game analysis, and Rachel tells me, “I think it was cool because the goals kept going back and forth.” Afterward, one of their parents asks if the girls can get a picture with me. I say sure. We pose holding the sign they brought to the game, white poster board designed like the Canadian flag, but with glitter, and “Let’s Go Sinclair” in giant black block letters.
It strikes me how this was just like my fandom when I was a kid—you love your favorite with a joy that’s consuming and contagious—and yet this was entirely different. In my childhood, going to see a professional team sport meant by definition I was going to see and cheer for men.
Whenever I talk to people about going to women’s sporting events, they always mention how the vibe or the feeling or the energy is different. I kept thinking about that, trying to put my finger on it, because I’ve felt it too. After the game, I decide the difference is respect. I roamed around the stadium on Sunday with a massive media credential around my neck and nobody yelled at me or called me fake news. After the game, I don’t worry about Thorns fans beating up visiting Pride fans. Nobody yells slurs at players. Fans who are new to the sports aren’t chided for their lack of knowledge; instead people happily explain the rules. This isn’t to take away from the competition on the field, which was physical and intense. But unlike at men’s sporting events, at no point at any women’s club soccer or WNBA game I’ve attended have I felt threatened as a reporter or as a fan.
On the bus back to Dawn’s place, I see the report on the latest attendance numbers for the first NWSL games after the World Cup. There were bumps for multiple teams, even though their national team members weren’t back with their clubs yet. And the Thorns show that if you give fans a good team and a good experience—what every fan wants—they will show up.
But like in every other aspect of life, in global soccer the sexism persists. It’s why Real Madrid didn’t agree to take on a women’s club until this year, and the billionaires at Manchester United didn’t start a women’s team until last year. Brazil still doesn’t have a pro league that pays women players enough to live. The longest operating professional women’s professional soccer club in the United States plays at a college field at Rutgers. Many of the historic clubs of Europe still don’t make nearly the investment they could, easily, in global women’s club soccer, they just can’t be bothered.
Part of me still wants to scream that our women still aren’t getting enough of anything—pay, attention, media, respect—and yet another part of me almost can’t believe I actually have seen progress, not enough but still measurable, still real, in my lifetime. The Thorns game felt light years away from that night in Boca Raton, watching Wambach greet supporters in the dark of night, lit only by the field lighting, signing autographs in a swarm of fans standing on metal bleachers. None of it was something I could have fathomed at the age of 9.
On the bus ride home, I ask Dawn for her review. She suggests: “We should go to another game next time you’re here.”