FROM STEVE BRENNER IN PORTLAND
Mark Parsons gazes towards the gleaming new main stand at Providence Park and smiles. “I just love walking in every day,” the Englishman, who coaches the Portland Thorns and landed the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) championship in 2017, tells the Guardian.
“I take 60 seconds and let it all sink in: that I work at the Thorns. To be a part of this is cool.”
Last Saturday, a club record 25,218 fans crammed into arguably the most atmospheric venue in the United States to see the Portland Timbers mark the renovation party with a defeat against in-form MLS leaders LAFC. Yet the most telling evidence of Portland’s thriving soccer ecosystem came the next day. Decked out in red, Thorns supporters of all ages and genders flooded the streets before kick-off and made their way into rejuvenated surroundings, which cost around $85m to complete and have added an extra 4,000 seats to the stadium’s east side.
The Thorns had been on the road for the first six games of the NWSL season, and had been sorely missed. A record season-opening home attendance of 19,461 spoke of a genuine longing to see Parsons’ team in action. The Rose City Riveters’ fan group banged the drums, shuffled their dancing feet, and belted out songs for 90 minutes. Forward Midge Purce’s cooly taken first-half double sent the crowd suitably wild. Their match with the Chicago Red Stars felt like top-level soccer should – atmospheric, lively, and exciting. At the end of the 3-0 win, Thorns players mingled with family on the pitch before signing autographs for young fans.
The women’s game continues to grow and evolve, but nowhere makes it come alive like Portland. Ever since they attracted 16,479 for their first NWSL match in 2013, interest has soared. League bosses must wish for similar crowds elsewhere – the Utah Royals are the only other club generating turnouts over 13,000, while other teams are hovering around 5,000 – but the front office at Providence Park know how fortunate they are. Mass interest in the beautiful game did not happen accidentally.
The lack of an NHL, NFL or MLB franchise in the city certainly helps capture eyeballs in one of the country’s less-saturated sporting market – the Portland Trail Blazers definitely made a mark during their recent run to the NBA Western Conference finals – while the the prominence of the University of Portland women’s soccer program has also been instrumental.
Nine top players were missing last weekend as they gear up for this month’s World Cup (the Thorns have provided more players than any NWSL roster, while Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan started the final in 2015 for the USWNT as Thorns players), though the excitement wasn’t diluted.
“A buzzword which gets used a lot is ‘authenticity,’ but that’s the core of our brand – both for the Timbers and the Thorns, who have become one of the most successful women’s team in the world,” says the teams’ owner, Merritt Paulson. “It’s a DIY ethos and we provide the canvas for the fans. We know what makes it unique. But [the Thorns’ popularity] has been a nice surprise. We never envisaged having 14,000 people come to watch the Thorns, we had expectations of maybe 7,000. We don’t market them as a niche product, we are a high-calibre, professional set-up.”
The collaboration with their MLS counterparts, which began in 2012 following the creation of the Thorns, is an integral part of Paulson’s push to create a thriving, progressive soccer community. Timbers favourite Diego Valeri’s daughter is Thorns-obsessed, while both sets of coaches have become close, and swap ideas.
This rare cross-pollination – only the Utah Royals, Orlando Pride and Houston Dash have similar setups with MLS franchises – is bearing fruit: 20% of Timbers season-ticket holders also have Thorns season tickets, while the figure climbs to 30% the other way around. Two teams have become one.
“It 100% helps having the Timbers around to feed off,” says Thorns captain Emily Menges. “The whole Timbers team were given Thorns shirts earlier this year and they wear them everywhere – I’ve seen them around town. We kind of mixed together while the stadium was being redone, and it was great. Our togetherness has an organic feel to it.”
Timbers coach Gio Savarese agrees. “It’s a complete unit, which has to support each other to become successful; it’s not just one particular team and that’s it,” he says. “We want the women, the youth teams, and everyone to be a success. We have to work with each other, to become a family. That is what a club should be. Portland has a very clear identity.”
For Parsons, whose coaching career started at Chelsea and took him to Washington DC, before taking in the Pacific Northwest, being the envy of his rivals sits perfectly. “I grew up going to Chelsea games and I thought that was the pinnacle,” he says. “Then I came here and sampled the matchday experience. When I returned to Chelsea afterwards, it felt less special. I became a snob. I thought the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge was horrendous in comparison.”
Talk to anyone in the city and you get a sense of the esteem the team is held in. “The fans are really engaged,” adds Parsons. “We do the ‘clap around’ after games and there’s people in their 70s, 80s. Boys, girls, middle-aged.
“There’s this culture, and it’s a shame that I am saying they are special because of this, but the people of Portland want to see females succeed. They’re world-class athletes, fans want to put them on a pedestal like they deserve to be, while knowing they get support from the owner in terms of finance and resources. The fans want to see women treated the way they deserve to be in the top fields of sports or business.”
The popularity of both teams has made the job less problematic for Mike Golub, the club’s president of business operations.
“We had been trying to crack the code with Ikea for four or five years on the Timbers side,” says Golub, who worked for the NBA during the roll-out of the WNBA in 1997. “But they came in as a Thorns sponsor because they wanted to reach a more female audience. Mini Cooper, too. Their success here has been wonderful, but we can’t be complacent. Having the initial fan interest is key and we definitely have struck a chord, especially with millennials. But we have to keep pushing forward.”
The startling case of Olivia Moultrie, who turned professional at 13, has made the rest of the world, never mind the country, stand up and take serious noticeof what is happening in Portland. Moultrie, burdened with the pressure of becoming the next wonderkid off the block, is still at school, but is training with Parsons’ squad and has already has signed a pro-deal with Nike.
“It’s never been done before,” says Parsons. “People may be negative about it because it’s so different. But we always are trying to push and make everything as good as it can be. There’s just something a little different in Portland.”
Indeed there is, and long may it continue coming up roses.