Apr 212014
 

So this past week we’ve all been discussing this piece from Juliet Macur in the New York Times and ranting about how badly the author missed the mark. Our type of supporters had been ignored, deemed irrelevant, as if nothing we’d done since the league started to promote our passionate supporter culture had made any impression. Shortly after the NYT piece came out, Texas supporter Dana Crane posted an op-ed piece on The Soccer Desk site, and we nodded our heads furiously, seeing her take on Macur’s assertions one by one and dismantle them with real-life positive counterexamples. Among those examples were us, the Rose City Riveters.

The same Riveters who, in my opinion, just failed to bring it in New Jersey against Sky Blue, despite overwhelming numbers in the stands supporting Portland Thorns FC and not the home team.

So what the hell happened there and what can we learn from it?

This was the local hype leading up to our trip to support the Thorns against Sky Blue in New Jersey. H and I traveled from Portland and brought a couple of local fans in with us. A boatload of other Thorns supporters— some players’ friends and families, but also Paul Riley’s youth soccer club from Long Island—promised “the potential for a loud away crowd.” Families of Thorns players from around the area tailgated in the parking lot and invited us over for food and drinks. Allie Long’s boyfriend grilled burgers. Amber Brooks’s awesome mom fed us sandwiches and beers and cookies and fruit salad. Courtney Niemiec’s people gathered around another vehicle with their own coolers. There weren’t very many Sky Blue fans around. It seemed like maybe we were collectively going to rock the place. Our house, in the middle of Jersey.

Inside, though, that illusion blew apart quickly. Inspirational girl pop played over the PA. The kids of the soccer club had been instructed by email to wear their own club’s jerseys, “does not matter what color or type”; though some of them were in tune enough with the Thorns to have chosen red and white, many hadn’t bothered. Alongside the club kids, the stands were packed from end to end with other young girls and their mostly uninterested parents. At one point before the match, Alex Morgan toured the pitch smiling and waving like a pageant winner. The trio of preteens in the bleachers above ours gushed and fawned when she went by, and I commented how funny it was that they’d brought her here to just walk around even though she won’t be playing probably for months. They looked at me like I had three heads.

Since we weren’t allowed to have poles in the venue, we hung our flags up front. We had a Riveters crest travel banner, Portland city flags, a rainbow Cascadia. Nobody stopped us, but security did come over and make us re-hang them lower on the rails so kids could see over them at autograph time. Nobody asked us what any of it signified. Apart from some of the players, I’m pretty sure no one knew.

ipads2We had a travel drum, a cowbell, some claves. Our section and the adjacent one were both full of away fans, so we stood toward the front where we could lead chants and have both the team and people in the bleachers hear us. Bleacher seats were technically assigned, and a whiny mother complained until we moved and made way for her and her kids. Everyone around us sat. The announcer advertised the local Olive Garden.

We sang and raised our scarves during the anthem. People looked at us. We drummed and chanted. People moved away. We looked up pleadingly at our two locals, one of them an old-school Timbers fan, and begged them to make noise and sing with us. They gave us a pained, helpless look and put the claves back in the drum bag. We decided to try just singing without the drum. We sang Onward. No one joined in. Our locals moved into the next section and sat where they could see the game better. We stopped playing and singing and started agonizing about how we were letting the team down, how terribly we were failing the rest of our group watching the live stream. I started live-tweeting miserably. It all seemed wrong. This was *our* crowd. Except it wasn’t.

Rampone scored for Sky Blue. We held our scarves up and sang Rose City Til I Die. A celebratory siren recording played over the PA.

bleachers1croppedWhen Long was near us, we sang to her:

Allie Long, I know this game is killing you
 Oh, Allie Long, your aim is true

Some guy down below us said, “You haven’t used that drum very much.” Yeah, dude, why, you want to chant? “Oh, no, I only know UVA songs.” OK, you teach us yours and we’ll teach you ours. No? Okay, then. So we sang:

We schlepped this drum 3000 miles, we’ll schlep this drum 3000 more
Just to be the ones who schlepped this drum 3000 miles and hope they score

At the half I wandered over to Section 9 to find someone to chat with in Cloud9, Sky Blue’s new supporters group. Not many were there and the contact we’d been chatting with online was out of town, but a thirties-ish guy in a Red Bulls jersey recognized the Riveters scarf and shook my hand. We hadn’t heard any drums or singing way over on our end, but John was in fact their drummer, and he’d come over from the Empire Supporters Club to help the new SG. This match, Sky Blue’s home opener, was Cloud9’s first as an official entity. He said what Cloud9 is really hoping for is a double-header in Harrison. Yurcak Field is too far out of the way, too hard to get to by transit, plus ESC has the history and experience supporting a team for the full 90, and C9 could use some of that.

Long converted a PK in the 75th to equalize. She’s been a beast so far this season. We drummed and sang We Root for the Thorns. Others around us barely seemed to have registered that the team scored a goal.

A boy, maybe 10 or 11 years old, came up to us. “Hey, I’ve got one. I Believe!”

Nah, we told him, that’s for the national team. He shrugged and walked away. We wondered whether maybe we should have humored him and just done it. When in Rome and all that. It’d have at least been something.

A group of little girls up above us started doing “Let’s Go Portland, Let’s Go”. Then “De-fense! De-fense!” The announcer called out the winner of some prize, an autographed boot or something like that. A six-year-old girl. The announcer was sure she was very happy.

At 80’ we sang Keep On Lovin’ You. Around 85’, people in our own sections started leaving.

We can see you, we can see you, we can see you sneaking out!

rails1The match ended 1-1. Girls rushed the rails for autographs. Some miniature Fran Drescher sound-alike near us whined for Alex Maaaw-gan. The team came over for a very short time to sign items. H scarfed our fancy new keeper, who didn’t understand at first that the scarf was a gift for her, so now Angerer has a BAON scarf signed by Angerer.

One-T is their assistant coach now. H scarfed him too. I went over afterward and assured him how much better it’s going to be next week. “We’ll take the point,” he said. No, I clarified, you guys were great; I mean *us*.

We cut down our banners and packed up our souvenir Rutgers football soda cup. A few more players walked by including Sinc. We waved and yelled after them: “Next week!” Sinc called back: “We can’t wait! Looking forward to the tifo! There’s tifo… right?”

A little later we were listening to the crowd on the RSL vs. Timbers match stream. Even with the classless YSA and Puto chants, I was jealous. So jealous, and not a little depressed.

Are we doing something that’s worth doing? I wondered. Within the context of this particular league, is this just stupid? Complete overkill?

I thought about moving that paragraph above about Sinc to here and just stopping. It would have been a way for me to conclude that no, it’s not stupid and no way in hell should we do that—we support the team and the team notices. But the larger situation is more nuanced than that. It’s easy for us to look at what we’ve accomplished in the past and say everyone should do it the way Portland does. By that I don’t mean necessarily the scale, but certainly the passion. If Portland has ten people at an away game, men’s or women’s, and they sing the whole time and they’ve painted a banner and they know the players’ names and who on the opposing team to heckle by name, that all very much counts. The Riveters have brought it at other away games and we always do the job on our home ground. But as our whole experience this weekend made clear, hundreds or even thousands of warm bodies stuck in seats without any history, passion, or context just leads to massive total suck. That won’t inspire teams or keep anybody coming back. But I can’t imagine how hard it must be to turn things around if you’re a supporter in a home location where that’s your starting point.

So yeah, Cloud9 has their work cut out for them. The cross-pollination with ESC is likely a good thing, but they’re going to need not only local folks who can make it out to the venue, but WoSo-savvy charismatic leaders or at least self-starters and a bunch of very loud regulars who can get everyone used to having visible and vocal soccer supporters of all ages at these games. And those people need to relentlessly *be* vocal and visible, even if others around really don’t approve or care. There’s no other way to make their presence part of the team’s culture, encourage rival SGs to do better, and attract more supporters who want women’s soccer support to be more like that and are willing to do the hard work required.

In Portland we’re lucky to be building on an established tradition of fanatical and organized soccer support. if it were us in Cloud9’s shoes, surrounded by annoyed non-supporters and doing our thing in a venue that treated matches as children’s events week after week, I think I get now how draining it would be at times to keep doing it. The soul-suckingness of it got to us really hard, being abandoned like that even by our own team’s fans. Maybe they were led by the press to expect a spectacle, instead of understanding they would need to *be* that spectacle.  More likely they just didn’t care, or even know it was an option to care.

So since then I’ve been rereading Crane and letting her words reassure me that we’re not completely alone and not completely crazy, and when we get home I’ll be able to summon the energy to help make our home opener something the players will remember for a long time. But I’m also rereading Macur, and I think I understand much better now why she came at it the way she did, although I’m not happy about it. Though I strongly disagree with her proposals for stabilizing the league, I think what she saw in Maryland was in some ways unfortunately spot on. The new coach and players considered this outing a success, but we know from our own experience what success can be like and this wasn’t in any way related. In Portland, the Thorns are a Portland team; we recognize them as professionals without hesitation and we are fiercely proud of them. Elsewhere, they are a women’s soccer team, with all the cultural baggage that carries. And it’s got me looking beyond our own city and wondering where WoSo supporters in this country collectively go from here, and how.

  12 Responses to “Culture Report: Thorns at Sky Blue 4/19/14 (Can You Hear Portland Sing? Noooo, Noooo…)”

  1. Keep it up, Rose City
    Don’t give up!
    Well written and well said.
    Your fighting the good fight!

    Paul

  2. I understand how dissapointing that must have been. I think it is just going to take the time to change the culture at some of the other stadiums. This weekend I went to Chicago to chear on Karina LeBlanc. I cheered and cheered for her all by myself in my section, and I was proud of how loud I was. But I sure got a lot of looks, as if maybe I had two heads or something. Chicago has a fairly decent supporters section, but I wanted to be close to Karina in goal, so it was mostly parrents and kids in my section (including my own kids who have long since grown out of being embarrassed of me). I think we just have to keep on keeping on, and eventually it will change. I sure have a lot more confidence being loud and proud after sitting in the Riveters supporters section for the championship game, so don’t underestimate the impact you guys had on the weekend.

    I will be cheering like crazy at the next Portland away game in Rochester, even if it is just me. But if it is anything like last season, there will be tons of Canadians in my section there to suport Sinc, and I will do my best to get them on board. Unfortunately, I am not able to attend home games but I will see what I can remember from the championship game 🙂

  3. Yurcak Field is a tough one. I’ve never had it on the my list of away games because I’ve heard that the atmosphere just doesn’t exist. And that was what I head learned from friends who are fans of SBFC. Remember last season when Loyden brought her own cowbell and played it from the bench? That level of poor atmosphere. It’s a real bummer that the deal SBFC was working on with Red Bull didn’t work out, moving the team to be closer to anything would have been a positive move.

    You’re right, Lexi. We do have something special. And I’m not sure if every stadium needs to be the spectacle that is Providence Park.

    I like that many articles have been written up about how Houston is actually the real test for how successful a MLS/NWSL partnership can be because it is not in Portland. I think that is a key here. When the conversation about support is discussed, we have to take ourselves out of it. We’re the exception, not the rule. Hopefully what we accomplish can inspire others and hopefully we get inspired by what other SGs are able to do.

    In a lot of ways, the Macur piece was a wake up call. That is the way folks who don’t follow the sport see it. And while we don’t have that same perspective in Portland, we need to remember that we’re in a special place. With special people. And not forget that the majority of the teams in this league are used to a crowd smaller than what the Pilots get on average for one of their matches.

    How do we help? By continuing to go to away games. Continuing to sing and chant and dance our way to victory. By helping other SGs when they ask for help.

    • I get what you’re saying, but I disagree that we need to take ourselves out of it. That’s what I mean about it successfully scaling down. Passion is free, thrift store cloth is cheap. Had anyone wanted to sing, that’s all we would have needed this weekend.

      • When I said “take ourselves out of it,” I meant I don’t think we can compare the rest of the league’s support to what we experience in Portland, both in the North End and in the rest of the stadium.

        What I think is disconnected is this idea that everyone wants to support with song and chants and drums. That’s the tradition and behavior we expect in Portland. Shoot, we even yell at people in the North End when they’re not singing and chanting but on their phones, but that’s in our home. Sure, passion is free, and I’m sure some of the Portland fans at that match were passionate about a particular player or family member, but those things (singing, chanting, drumming) are new and part of a slow build to something spectacular. It’s hard to change years of routine behavior with just one match.

  4. Macur isn’t the first idiot to think that just because a gajillion kiddos play soccer in the US that pro soccer needs to cater to them and she won’t be the last. But any supporter from anywhere where footy is like bread and air will tell you that you don’t get kids stuck on soccer by lumping them into the ground in chattering groups and let them sit there dope-goofing and texting each other during the play. The kids learn by going with mom and dad who love the Thorns and show them how to sing and chant. They learn from crusty old Auntie Gin who’s loathed the Reign every since there WAS a Reign and teaches little Sissy to give the “V” sign to Hope Solo (who she loves when she plays for the USWNT) in her Seattle kit because, well, she’s Seattle and that’s how we greet Seattle.

    Let’s not forget that the Timbers Front Office bought the whole “we need the kiddos and the young families” guff at first. The first MLS season the TA got a lot of stick for some of the chants – YSA got booted largely because of that – and there was a serious attempt to tone down the supporter culture in favor of the “suburban soccer mom/dad/kid” atmosphere.

    Now the kids here are learning how to support their team as they should; from the adults around them, and that’s how the NWSL and SBFC will stand or fall – by enlisting adult support, regardless of whatever silly things this Macur believes…

  5. Great article. I have heard that there were complaints made against the support group at the Spirit games for being too loud. Yes, I thought the same thing too “is this the twilight Zone?”. This is crazy that fans would report another fan for cheering on the very team they were all there to see. But the problem is too much reliance as been placed on mainly young fans and the owners are afraid of pissing off these parents and family, cutting what ever ticket sales they get from them. Each team needs to make sure there is a section for their supporter group and it starts at the front office. I guarantee you they will start to sell more tickets and bring more repeat fans with a more exciting atmosphere. We now have to see which club will take the necessary risk to break the mole. Catering mainly to disinterested parents, who just sees it as a weekend chore to take their kids to the game for a quiet afternoon, will keep the women’s game stagnant in this country.

    • The irony about parents potentially complaining about supporters sections is that my kids enjoy the game more when we sit there. When we sit in ‘regular’ sections, they are bored by half time. When we sit in a supporters section, they are engaged the whole game.

  6. A lot more west side fans got more involved with the Timbers after sitting near the opposing supporters. How else do we hate S**ttle but for familiarity? Sometimes you have to let the animosity build first…

    …and that’s a problem here. MLS took a while to transition from “national team fans who want to support a home team” to “I’m a fan of (let’s say) DC United!” That’s 1.0 MLS in a nutshell. I’d argue the success of the WNT makes a league that much harder to establish, never mind that it’s going to take this very league to help USA get back ahead of the pack.

    It’s more of a problem that most of the other cities in this league WERE part of one or both of the previous leagues. The first thing on a lot of fans’ minds has to be “I don’t want to be invested emotionally until there’s a season 4… for once.” I think that if you dig beneath the Macur article, you probably find a lot of that sentiment among people who ARE going to games.

    I’ll also point out… it took time with the USL Timbers. It’ll take time here. Fortunately, and I specifically point to USSF paying top players, this league is designed to survive to season 4.

  7. […] English supporters aren’t all that demonstrative. The Rose City Riveters posted a thoughtful piece on women’s soccer supporter culture, lamenting that their percussion and chanting […]

  8. A quick follow-up: In the feedback on this piece we’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere over the past day, the most oft-criticized interaction here has been dissing the kid who asked for the I Believe chant. The reasons behind that could fuel a whole second article having to do with the philosophy and conventions of country vs. club support in the US and how the lines are a whole lot blurrier on the WoSo side (I imagine at least partly because there hasn’t been a continuous or strong club tradition, but also because the USWNT has really been the gateway for a lot of folks here to get into women’s soccer in the first place). Short answer is it was the second half, we were totally dragged down and pissed off by the whole situation by then, we don’t personally like the chant, and it was a spur-of-the-moment rejection that we immediately started second-guessing since, as so many have responded, support is better than no support. So there’s that. Y’all are probably right.

  9. I keep thinking about this and I’m stuck on the fact that the contact guy there, the kid wrangler from the soccer camp, really missed a golden opportunity. He could have showed the kids video of supporters around the world, taught them chants, given them an idea what they might be able to expect if they keep playing. But it wasn’t important to him at all. He just wanted to advertise the soccer camp and herd the kids like an ordinary day. Such a shame.

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