When I made plans to go to Portland to cover this year’s NWSL Championship, I was very much hoping I’d have the opportunity to watch the Chicago Red Stars play a soccer game there. And while a minor point in a much larger conversation, the postponement of Chicago’s eventual defeat honestly gave me very little time to switch gears before heading west. However, teams involved be damned, the final in Portland presented the opportunity for a watershed moment in women’s club soccer in America, and I wanted to be there. But I’m not sure I fully knew what that meant until I arrived.
I didn’t have a rooting interest in this match, outside of wanting friends to be happy, and the result on the field followed a narrative that didn’t surprise anyone who paid attention to the 2018 season. Which is perhaps why my own attention frequently turned to everything else whirling around the actual game.
The soccer culture that surrounds the Portland Thorns is a phenomenon that is difficult to pin down, and that frustrates supporters of every other NWSL team in the country. Their expectations feel unfair, their support is specific, and their inclusivity is haunted by a spirit of privileged benevolence that can rub you the wrong way when you’re in the trenches elsewhere. After my experience this weekend, I’m not convinced my feelings on that have significantly changed, but they perhaps feel less insurmountable within the greater possibility of a more charitable future.
And for better or worse, within the post-season landscape, the Thorns and the Red Stars have been unlikely but kindred spirits. Both teams had similar journeys in building their rosters back up from injury, and they both prioritized a loose, entertaining form of soccer that never had quite enough time to get off of the ground before meeting the disciplined chaos of the ultimate champions.
Joy, an underrated motivator of many things, has always run as an undercurrent to much of the gatekeeping within the WoSo community. Sports often lean into to the idea of personal ownership anyway (one might even argue they survive on it), but there’s been a recent shift in the last few years as a niche community tries to protect itself from the ever-darkening landscape outside. The arguments are frequently overcharged, and mostly under-thought, but the tone is hard to deny: “Living in this world is hard. I will not let you steal the joy I get from this.”
And in the light of this weekend, I can’t stop thinking about how much we saw that joyful defiance from Chicago this year. The injuries at the beginning of the season were bad, but the mid-season trade that sent Sofia Huerta, Taylor Comeau, and Sam Johnson elsewhere should have blown this season sky high. It boiled over lingering animosity and brought up questions of loyalty and investment that the Red Stars had never had to reckon with before. But almost miraculously, in swift, equal and opposite motion, the response from the Chicago’s locker room was unified. Stay joyful. Score goals. Have fun. Win games.
Culture change at a club is hard, and it takes time, which is possibly the rarest commodity in women’s sports. But it’s also one of the most concrete things to hold onto after the tough end to a season. It came through from Chicago’s players and staff after Tuesday’s semi-final, and it marked a stark difference (within many) in the way this season progressed. Don’t get me wrong, I want to support a team that plays beautiful soccer and wins lots of things for the city that I love. But I also want that to happen in positive ways where everyone gets out of the season intact.
Bringing me to my larger point, which is: the growth of NWSL presents a cultural opportunity that I’m terrified of letting go to waste. Someday, men with money are going to realize that this league is financially viable, and things are going to start to change. And it’s so easy to point to men’s sports leagues as the standard to which we should strive, but what I saw last weekend actually makes me think that we can do better.
Because at Providence Park on Saturday, after a hard loss in front of a home crowd, the culture never broke down. And at some point, despite the result (or perhaps because of it), it stayed defiantly joyful. I would never pretend that the Portland Thorns and the Chicago Red Stars are the same kind of team, and I would like one of them to get the better of the other next year. But it’s an ethos I can get behind.
Because culture change is hard, and this is a good place to start.