The story begins like so many others by taking a leap out of our comfort zone and initiating a conversation. First, it was a bus travelling on I-5 as the Timbers Army headed north to watch the green and gold take on Seattle. The WPS had fallen apart; and the NWSL was not yet in existence as I started a conversation with a red haired woman on my bus about support, ideals, the women’s game and the USWNT.
As with many things in life, this was something that happened partially by chance and partially by opportunity. With open seats on the bus, my general wandering and my friends reorganizing to speak with each other there was an empty seat behind her, and so we easily struck up a conversation.
She introduced herself as Gabby and we shared a small conversation about a topic on which she was clearly very passionate. We talked about your typical soccer fans, support and passion independent of gender lines. We spoke about flags, tifo, singing and passionate fervor for the women’s game. There was this general idea of creating a chaotic din that represents the city and team that you love. I may not remember the exact particulars of every word but I do remember the love and passion for the beautiful game that resided within my new acquaintance on this bus.
We eventually separated and after departing the bus, we headed our separate ways. This will tend to happen when you have several hundred fans, kegs of beer and weaving lines of fans heading into Century Link.
Over one year later…
A lanky woman in white stands over a ball on a field in Rochester, New York and takes a deep breath before striding up to the ball. She blasts the sphere over the assembled wall and into the back of the net with such force that it energetically rebounds out of the net as though it didn’t belong there. Exaltation, celebration and passionate release in the stands as the camera crew cuts over to the travelling away support for the Thorns. There, in the midst of the chaotic, yelling, screaming masses was Gabby, awash in the moment of watching her team take what seemed like an improbable lead away from home. See, the story isn’t always just about the players, but (as well) about how the players, team, play and results interact with the fans on a visceral and emotional level.
In the end, Gabby travelled over 3,000 miles and watched, celebrated and lived the first professional, major league championship from a Portland team since 1977.
What the Thorns had problem with, even just as recent as four games ago, seemingly vanished as they remained switched on and defensively alert even after going down to 10 women in the second half. Rachel Buehler and Kat Williamson were able to not only stop Abby Wambach but noticeably frustrated her by utilizing all the skills in the “Dark Arts of Football” manual. Certainly Williamson eventually took the hands on clutching and grabbing with Wambach a bit too far getting a second yellow after Wambach went down just outside the 18 yard box. However, by that point in the game Wambach became noticeably perturbed by the tough treatment as she flashed imaginary cards and barked at the referee for calls. When Tina Ellertson came into the game in the second half, after Williamson was sent off, the damage had already been performed on Wambach’s psyche. While Ellertson was still called upon for stops she can thank the tenacious play of Williamson and Buehler for setting the table for success in the second half.
This was a game that fulfilled the tedious saying of “balanced on a knife edge.” There was all to play for as both teams had gilt edged chances to take control of the game. Back and forth with great saves, hard tackles, and (at times) pulsating action the game was many times over what you wish would happen in a final.
With time counting down and the Thorns still hanging on to a one goal advantage, a combination between Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair resulted in the Thorns season being closed out by the Portland captain in style. Sinclair is a true connected Portland legend in every facet from her early viewing s of women’s games while sitting in the North End in 1999, to her records and play for the Portland Pilots to her relationship with the patron saint of Portland soccer, Clive Charles. If there was ever an appropriate way to end the season, this was the way to do it.
“I consider it home…It’s a city that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with.” – Christine Sinclair on Portland
And as the victorious women from the Thorns landed back in Portland International Airport, Sinclair humbly made her statement to the news cameras, soaked up the love, interacted with fans and left the chanting crowds behind… all the more enigmatic for her lack of the love of the spotlight.
Stories like this 2013 season so often end with a whimper rather than a bang. For the other seven teams in the NWSL this is true. Their season ended at the hand of a bad regular season, the Portland Thorns or Western New York Flash. At least 77 other women were unable to find the ultimate goal fulfilled and left the end of the season looking forward to new teams, a new season or perhaps recovering during the offseason. Regardless of the league or situation, a championship win is something that should never be overlooked. These are magical things that happen all too infrequently for most of us. Somewhere in the midst of Alex Morgan’s injury and the Thorns disappointing performances at the end of the year (many of which I ripped apart on the pages of this website) the team finally came together. They gathered a grit and tenacity that ended up coming to the forefront in the Kansas City semi-final that finally reinforced the idea that yes, this Thorns team could indeed go out and win the NWSL championship.
It wasn’t just the inclusion of Heath, the injury that forced Morgan out of the lineup, or the exploding play of Mana Shim in the midfield that may have changed the team. It was all those things and more perhaps including the fact that the Thorns lost the ability to host a playoff game at home. The team was forced out of their comfort zone and away from their bastion of support… and perhaps that was for the best. The fire was back, the focus was back, and the team responded.
Something that I will take from this 2013 season is the ability to not only watch the growth of the team but, as well, the growth of the fan base in Portland. I watched fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, wives, husbands, and every race, creed, and belief system gather together in Jeld-Wen Field. This was Portland at its best represented by the coming together of a city to celebrate, commiserate and react together in good times and bad. Regardless of team or sport, regardless of financial or socioeconomic status the city came together into a mass group of supporters for something real, something tangible and something both painful and beautiful depending on which game was happening.
The previous isn’t to minimize something important though and something I haven’t spoken too much about intentionally. That thing that I haven’t spoken about is the seemingly simple but very complex idea of identity and gender. On this last thought I don’t pretend to offer something profound, merely the description of something that I wasn’t even there to see in person. In the post championship haze of delight I happened on a simple picture of a young girl at the Bagdad showing of the Thorns game.
(For those of you unfamiliar with the setup or who do not know, the Thorns set up a public viewing at the Bagdad theater in Portland. The place was overrun with fans with management eventually posting a sign that indicated that there was standing room only as a mass of people descended on the pub/movie theater.)
This young girl sat on the steps of the main stage with her gaze fixated on the massive screen above. In that one simple framed shot you could see the past, present and possible future of all possibilities in the women’s game. With the flickering scenes of the NWSL championship in her eyes, one could only imagine what could really happen with her life. This little person could become another Sinclair, Morgan, Buehler, Leblanc or Foxhoven. Perhaps she becomes another Pia Sundhage, Brianna Scurry or Julie Foudy. Or perhaps she becomes a Holly Duthie, Kristen Gehrke, or Lexi Stern who were all instrumental in organizing, founding and enabling the Rose City Riveters. Perhaps she becomes a Sunday White, who gave her boundless energy to the crowd over and over again on the main capo stand while simultaneously discovering the ability to BE the person on the main capo stand.
Or perhaps she could be Gabby, with red hair and lungs full of songs, who waited a long time to have this club team to cheer for, and was able to be there the day a team made up of women representing Portland were the best women’s team in the nation.
Congratulations to the Portland Thorns, your 2013 NWSL Champions.
Onward Rose City