The US Women’s National team just won their fourth World Cup. They’re experiencing a cultural moment seemingly unlike any other since 1999. Their players are international superstars, some of the most visible and celebrated American athletes at the moment. Megan Rapinoe, winner of the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at the World Cup, is on a nonstop late night television tour. They’re about to embark on a victory tour where they’ll fill out stadiums around the country, starting with the Rose Bowl on August 3 (inconveniently, during an NWSL weekend). No doubt the rest of the victory tour will take place in some of the premier venues for soccer in the country. There’s also little doubt that Providence Park has missed the shortlist.
The victory tour might be the wrong time to visit a medium-sized stadium in not a particularly huge market. It’s unlikely to generate the kind of income that the organizers are hoping to get from the tour. However, the USWNT haven’t been to Portland since 2012, before the start of the NWSL in 2013 — and before Portland proved to be the most robust and consistent audience for women’s soccer in the nation. Everyone knows now about Portland’s dedication to the league that has catapulted the National Team into new levels of competitiveness, how it’s outstripped the rest of the league in attendance, and how they’re built on their successes every year. Everyone that is, except for US Soccer.
Portland doesn’t need a visit from the USWNT to keep growing their club. And the USWNT, one of the most popular and successful sports teams in the nation, certainly doesn’t need to visit Portland to grow their fan base. The entity that needs it is the NWSL.
That the flagship franchise of the league should somehow go its entire existence without a visit from its creator and major backer seems like a glaring omission. It’s an obvious sign of disconnect between a league and its financial backer that understands its importance but has no interest in its growth.
Let’s be honest about this: USWNT fans turn off after major tournaments. It’s not even their fault: There’s no advertising for the NWSL at USWNT events or on television broadcasts, and without knowledgeable broadcasters like Aly Wagner and Jenn Hildreth on USWNT games, the NWSL wouldn’t come up at all. National print media largely ignores the league, making it difficult to follow.
Portland breaks all the rules. Everyone knows about the attendance records and how consistent they are. People may forget how much fans here love the league: 13,264 people turned up for an NWSL final at Providence Park in 2015 — and the home team wasn’t even playing. It was still a higher attendance than any NWSL playoff game not held in Portland. This is a city where a totally unadvertised training game between Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain can sell out Merlo Field just by word of mouth. Last year, a last-minute venue change to the semifinal between the North Carolina Courage and the Chicago Red Stars on a Tuesday night still drew more than the average NWSL club gets on their best nights. So many people came that the club didn’t order enough hot dogs to serve the attendees. People here love women’s soccer — and they want as much of it as they can get.
USWNT fandom, on the other hand, is completely detached from the sport. Fans go to see players they know and love do amazing things, and then they go home. We saw the most dramatic example of this on Fox nonstop throughout this World Cup: packed and thrilled crowd scenes of Kansas City, a two-time NWSL Championship-winning city that never showed up to support its NWSL franchise before it got dissolved and had its players moved to Utah. Crowds at the watch parties in Kansas City were reported at up to ten thousand. FC Kansas City never beat their average of 4,626 fans in their inaugural 2013 season and never even played in a stadium with a higher capacity than 6,150. Again, it’s hardly the fault of the fans, but seeing the massive promotional efforts put into getting USWNT fans to watch a big television makes the shoddy leadership of FCKC, who repeatedly moved venues and failed to sustain a regular audience, painful to reflect on by comparison.
Since the start of the NWSL, the USWNT has played in or within an hour drive of every single city with an NWSL team — except Portland. They’ve been to Kansas City three times, including once after FCKC was dissolved. They’ve been to New Jersey three times. They’ve been to Cary, North Carolina, twice for friendlies and held three games of the CONCACAF championship there as well. They’ve been to Orlando three times. They’ve been to Houston twice for friendlies and held the final of 2016 Olympic qualifying at BBVA Compass stadium. They’ve played in Washington, D.C, three times. They’ve played in Chicago three times. They’ve played in Sandy, Utah, three times. They’ve even played in Boston proper once, and East Hartford, Connecticut, a mere hour and a half drive away, three times. They’ve played in Seattle twice. In seven years, every single NWSL city has gotten multiple visits from the national team whose players spend most of their time there, and Portland has gotten none. This can’t be an accident.
The turf field at Providence Park is frequently cited as a reason why the USWNT doesn’t play games in Portland, but it hasn’t stopped the team from playing games in other stadiums with turf, such as Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. They’ve even played on turf that isn’t even specifically designed for soccer fields, like CenturyLink in Seattle. For whatever reason, US Soccer clearly isn’t on great terms with the PTFC organization. There wouldn’t have been such a long period without a national team game if this weren’t the case. (The men’s team has been to Portland most recently in the 2013 Gold Cup, the game where Chris Wondowlowski scored.) The dispute is keeping the USWNT and the most popular club in the league it sponsors at arm’s length.
A USWNT game in Portland now would be a spectacle unlike any USWNT game anywhere else. A tifo covering the length of the North End (Does USSF even allow tifos? Has this even come up ever?) and cheering throughout the game is something that most USWNT fans have no idea are even within the realm of soccer fandom. The love that the city shows could serve as a bridge between a casual USWNT fandom and NWSL fandom, or even to fandom of the sport itself. The longer this goes on, the more it seems like US Soccer isn’t interested in this happening. It’s starting to feel a little like they want to keep the fans and their dollars to themselves — even if it means holding back the commercial viability of the league that is now essential to maintaining the USWNT’s competitive advantage.
If US Soccer truly doesn’t want to play a game here, Canada is welcome to have a home game here any time. They might be surprised at how welcoming an atmosphere they find.