The Portland Thorns are the defending National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) champions. Providence Park, the home of both the Thorns and the Timbers of MLS, will be packed to the rafters yet again when the Timbers begin their home season April 15, providing a big-game feel that can’t be matched anywhere else in the women’s soccer world. In this, the sixth year of the NWSL, why can’t there be more teams like the Thorns?
Portland has been extremely successful on the field, with two league championships and one Supporters’ Shield. But the focus tends to be on the ever-filled bleachers at Thorns’ home games. If you take Portland out of the equation, the NWSL as a whole averaged about 3,600 fans per game last season. Portland, meanwhile, averaged 17,653.
Outside of Portland, the league has struggled to attract fans, sponsors and media coverage. Two founding teams folded last winter. While U.S. Soccer supports the league and pays the salaries of the national-team players, if the NWSL is going to grow and thrive, it needs more teams like the Thorns.
The prime driver for Portland’s success is its ownership situation. When the league launched in 2013, every MLS team got a chance at starting a new women’s franchise. The only one who took the offer was Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, who decided that it was not only important to start a women’s team, but to do it right.
The Thorns’ players get the same treatment as the Timbers. Both teams’ logos adorn the outside of Providence Park. Thorns players aren’t second-class citizens in the Rose City soccer setup. Since the two teams share staff and facilities, they have a built-in advantage that the league’s independent teams can’t match.
That said, Houston, Orlando and Utah are all in the same MLS-owned situation, and yet there’s only one Portland (Utah is a new team this year, so it remains to be seen how Utahans react to the squad). Houston and Orlando both have downtown stadiums like Portland, and it’s hard to argue that the Pacific Northwest has soccer culture that Orlando and Houston don’t have. Unless the Thorns have some magic hipster attraction to Portlandians, or Portland somehow has a more egalitarian ticket-buying public than the rest of the NWSL cities, it’s hard to see what the Thorns have that no one else has.
Paulson has repeatedly said that there’s no “magic fairy dust” causing the Thorns’ success. The quest now, for the rest of America, is to replicate it. The league needs more potential owners to step up, as Paulson did, and use their resources to help keep the NWSL from becoming a second-class league. Plenty of people involved with soccer in America — MLS owners or others — have the resources and expertise to replicate what is going on in Portland. The challenge for the NWSL now is getting those potential owners to care.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• USA striker Christen Press, pictured above right, officially turned down the chance to play for the Houston Dash, choosing instead to sign with Goteburg FC in Sweden. The contract is short-term, giving Press the chance to go elsewhere this summer. But it’s clear that her list of potential destinations does not and will not include Houston.
• Though the joint USA-Mexico-Canada bid to host the World Cup is far from a lock, the potential locations for the final rounds have been revealed. MetLife Stadium in New Jersey would host the final, while the semifinals would be played in Atlanta and Dallas. That’s enough room for more than a quarter of a million people to attend the final three games of the tournament.
• Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic joined the L.A. Galaxy this week and brought his particular brand of zany self-promotion to the U.S. by taking out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times that simply read, “Dear Los Angeles, You’re welcome.” Ibrahimovic could play in this weekend’s Los Angeles derby, which has earned the nickname “El Trafico” from fans, a play on the “El Clásico” name usually given to rivalry games in Latin countries.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Los Angeles Football Club coach Bob Bradley
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Bayern Munich, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. Der Klassiker has lost some luster this year as Dortmund struggles with inconsistency, while Bayern has run away with yet another league title. Now, Dortmund badly needs a point to stay in the Champions League spots. Three points is probably too much to hope for.
La Liga: Barcelona at Sevilla, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, beIN. In the same week, Sevilla managed to win away at Manchester United and lose on the road to Spanish also-rans Leganes. Which Sevilla squad will show up when Barcelona visits? The giant-killers who are through to the Champions League quarterfinals, or the middling La Liga squad?
MLS: LAFC at LA Galaxy, 2 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. The first Los Angeles cross-town derby since Chivas USA folded in 2014 feels a little different than the old Galaxy-Chivas battles. Chivas had a distinct whiff of the younger brother in the rivalry. Replacement LAFC is brash, glitzy and, for the moment, boasts a perfect record in MLS.
Premier League: Tottenham Hotspur at Chelsea, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Tottenham has played at Chelsea 25 times in the Premier League, and has come away with exactly zero victories. This year Chelsea is the underdog, five points behind Spurs in the race for the last Champions League spot. Can Tottenham finally win at Stamford Bridge?