Earlier this year, the National Women’s Soccer League announced that Portland would host the 2018 Championship Final. The potential for record-breaking crowds— and how the atmosphere of Portland soccer games looks and sounds on television— was undoubtedly a major part of the decision. After the previous two Finals (held in Houston and Orlando) posted attendance figures around 8,000, the league knew they needed to stage a blockbuster event in order to cement the growth of their organization.
Championship Final Weekend was a surreal experience. As Portland fans put on a show of support for their club, they fostered an environment that in some way shape or form that many want to emulate for their own clubs— lively, large, and loud.
The Championship Final was a culmination of bizarre, unfortunate, unpredictable, and uncontrollable series events. And a bigger winner came out through all of this— women’s professional soccer.
Show Me Love
I found myself in Portland to witness the playoff experience, and the city did not disappoint.
The semifinal hosted by Portland Thorns against rivals Seattle Reign FC set the stage for a series of women’s soccer matches in Portland after 14,000 showed up to witness the Thorns punch a ticket to the final.
Following that, nearly 5,000 people were in attendance on a Tuesday night for a women’s soccer match that didn’t feature their hometown Thorns, but the Red Stars and Courage.
Finally, last Saturday, over 21k showed up for the NWSL Championship Final, setting an attendance record for a women’s pro soccer final in the United States.
The Red Stars may not have made it through into the Championship Final, but Chicago’s presence was felt throughout it.
The Battle Before The War
The Courage advanced to the final after defeating the Red Stars, and while Chicago showcased some of their best soccer of the year, their missed chances came back to haunt them. However, the Red Stars indelibly left their mark on the Courage.
During Media Day leading up to the final, NC team captain and former Red Stars defender Abby Erceg acknowledged that Chicago’s game plan had pushed North Carolina in ways that no other team had done this year. “We just dropped off. We’re not really known for dropping off, and we’re known for our high press and we haven’t strayed too far from that.”
Erceg continued: “But in saying that, there hasn’t been a team that’s challenged us. That has made us have to drop off. [Chicago] were breaking lines. They were getting behind us, and it just forced us to do something that we hadn’t done before.”
Courage midfielder Sam Mewis echoed her captain’s sentiments. “I think that Chicago was amazing and they definitely presented us with a lot of questions and I think we really had to adjust our game to some of the things that they were doing.”
Back To That Same Old Place
While attending various soccer related events in the Rose City, people would get excited when they discovered I was traveling media from Chicago. They would commiserate and tell me they wished it was the Red Stars in the final— and after talking about how good the Red Stars are, would light up at the idea of Chicago potentially being in a final someday.
My own colleague, Stumptown Footy contributor and Portland Thorns expert Katelyn Best, framed the potential matchup that never was thusly:
“Sam Kerr’s Chicago has been so much fun, even when she’s scoring braces against the Thorns. This is a team that— like the Thorns, if I may be so bold— is hard to hate. I really feel like Portland and Chicago walked parallel paths this year in terms of dealing with difficulties that were out of their control to an extent most fans don’t appreciate enough. The whole mood around the city would have been different if it had been these two teams in the final.”
A whole ass mood? In our city? Around women’s pro soccer? What a dream.
But not unlikely. All the optimism among Portlanders leading up to and even after their team lost left me wondering— could Chicago someday play host to an NWSL Championship Final?
Big Shoulders Bigger Chip
A city that is home to the Big Four sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) reflects Chicago’s appetite for pro sports. Bears football has typically ran away with Chicago’s fandom, and the Cubs finally being good have captivated many. Though the Bulls are not playing well right now, the United Center has become a special place filled with stories of greatness. And amidst a rebuild on the South Side, there remains a loyal following of White Sox fans willing to stick it out through the bad times.
Though the Chicago Fire are going through their own troubles at the moment, the team miraculously made their way back into the playoffs just last year before getting eliminated in the first round. Attendance, an ongoing issue for the team, started to creep up last year as well.
The last time Chicago Red Stars hosted a NWSL home semifinal was back in 2015. The Red Stars home field at the time was Benedictine University, but the match was played in their current home facility, Toyota Park. Attendance for that game was just over 3,000, a huge improvement over their regular season average.
The City Beautiful
Chicago has all the amenities that a huge sporting event could want— lodging, entertainment, culinary. Bridgeview does not. It is home to vast architecture, vivid arts, and a lively music scene. Bridgeview is not.
CONCACAF recently announced that Soldier Field will play host to the 2019 Gold Cup Final. Chicago is no stranger to hosting big international soccer related events. Soldier Field has hosted both World Cups in 1994 and 1999. The city hosted the United States Women’s National Team in an Olympics send-off friendly back in 2016, while Tournament Of Nations fixtures were held in Toyota Park this past August.
On the international stage, Chicago thrives. Locally, is a bit of another story. And while it may not always feel like it, soccer can fly wild in the Windy City.
Just last month, at the end of August, Sterling Bay purchased another property for its Lincoln Yards project. A North Branch development that includes a 20,000 seat soccer stadium for a future USL club.
Portland was hands down an excellent choice for the NWSL Championship Final this year. What Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and their staff have done in that city has set the bar for everyone else. Not the standard, mind you. Other NWSL clubs haven’t reached that peak. Yet.
There is speculation that next year’s Final will be held at Rio Tinto Stadium. Utah Royals FC fell short of the playoffs in their inaugural season, but their attendance and burgeoning WoSo culture is helping set what many hope will one day actually be the standard.
North Carolina could also host a final. Cary is place with strong ties to women’s colligate soccer. Courage hosted a sold-out semifinal in 2017 and likely would’ve done so again this year were it not for Hurricane Florence. The appetite for women’s soccer is there.
Chicago could be an option too. Perhaps in the future, because truthfully, it’s not ready right now. Between being the home of US Soccer headquarters, the Chicago Red Stars, the Chicago Fire, and an eventual USL club, the city could credibly host an NWSL Championship Final— with appropriate planning and support in place.
Someday. Armed with the environment and support that only a city like Chicago can offer— loyal, gritty, and wild.