Unless you follow players like Sydney Leroux Dwyer or Kassey Kallman on social media, you could be forgiven for thinking women’s soccer was on hold until the next international friendly. If you do follow them, you know they are well into the NWSL season just like the men of MLS or NASL. And you could be watching some of their games.
NWSL makes itself known
Since the league’s inception in 2013, only a handful of games each season saw national broadcast, the majority of which were postseason games (the good old ‘let’s just show the winners’ shtick) and if you wanted to see more you would have to travel either to the Pacific Northwest or to Kansas City and eastward. This year, however, thanks to a deal with A&E/Lifetime networks, the National Women’s Soccer League has risen from the depths of cable obscurity to make a regular appearance at the forefront of most Americans’ channel listings. 25 matches of the 2017 season (including 3 of the postseason) will be broadcasted by the A&E/Lifetime networks as part of a three-year deal, meaning you can watch these high-quality (but grossly underpaid) athletes from the comfort of your own home.
Whether watching these games from home or the stands, the NWSL fan experience would be familiar to anyone who has watched the NASL or USL — reasonably-sized crowds of relaxed spectators enjoying the action during a day at the park. A Lifetime broadcast of the Washington Spirit taking on the Boston Breakers at home in the Maryland SoccerPlex on Saturday, August 12th showed a fun and positive atmosphere, with the crowd cheering for the two goals scored by each team, many narrowly-missed shots on goal and some fantastic saves. It also showed a number of families enjoying an afternoon at the park from a grassy berm behind the goal. Those who saw the Portland Thorns open the season against Orlando Pride at home, a Lifetime Game of the Week broadcast, likely witnessed a significantly more boisterous crowd.
Portland Thorns and Rose City Riveters
When the NWSL landed in Portland in 2013, the 107ist (Independent Supporters Trust) tree, which supports the Timbers Army, sprouted another branch of supporters to cheer on the Thorns, Portland’s NWSL club. The Rose City Riveters occupy the North End of Providence Park, the same section in which Timber Joey cuts the log for Timbers goals. Among other NWSL fans, the Riveters stand out. No, there isn’t a ‘Timber Jane.’
While there are other NWSL teams in cities that also host a MLS side (Kansas City, Chicago and Houston, to name a few), Portland’s soccer fandom had a huge head start when the Thorns started play. Portland’s long soccer history (with the Timbers playing in the early NASL from 1975 to 1982 and the USL from 2001 to 2010 before joining MLS in 2011, plus the University of Portland’s storied Pilots soccer program) makes it an ideal host city for the top-flight of women’s soccer in the U.S.
“There is a lot of soccer love here,” said Jo Thomson, a Riveter who handles the group’s communications networks. “Female athletes are not viewed as ‘lesser than’ here. Thorns isn’t a ‘Girls Night Out’ – far from it. The crowd is diverse, passionate, and knowledgeable.”
The chanting, flag-waving, and – sometimes – swearing Riveters could hold their own against just about any MLS supporters group. They are also active in the surrounding community, donating time and money to local causes and spreading their love of the game around the city. Other than the obvious ‘soccer love,’ what makes the Rose City Riveters such a successful fandom?
Thomson says, “The beauty that is Rose City Riveters is the result of unified Thorns supporters. Sometimes you see these little supporter fiefdoms with other clubs – that’s not sustainable, it’s ineffective. You’ve got to come together. The league is still so young, even at five years. You have to work together.”
If you want to be a Rose City Riveter…
There are currently ten teams in the NWSL, but only Portland has a supporters group that is regularly acknowledged. If we want to grow women’s soccer, the fan base needs to stand up. If even a small group stands up and consistently makes some noise, women’s soccer will no longer be seen as ‘lesser than.’ The top-flight of American women’s soccer may never rise to the level of MLS’ popularity, but it could become a topic of daily discussion, rather than an afterthought. All it takes is the will to stand up. As the preeminent NWSL supporters group says, “If you want to be a Rose City Riveter, you already are.”