Culture Report: Thorns at Sky Blue 4/19/14 (Can You Hear Portland Sing? Noooo, Noooo…)
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.
We 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.
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!
The 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.