Can Portland's New Superstars Save Women's Soccer?

The Portland Thorns launch with Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and high pressure.

By Jonanna Widner March 22, 2013

Her teammates call her Baby Horse. Alex Morgan, star for the US women’s soccer team, runs with a coltish gallop. Any awkwardness disappears, however, in front of the goal, where Morgan is one of the game’s most lethal strikers.

The charismatic 23-year-old Californian has become other things, too: a Katy Perry impersonator for ESPN The Magazine, Olympic gold medalist, tweeter to a million followers. Her next role arguably includes saving her sport’s professional future as linchpin of the Portland Thorns. When this new team takes the field on April 21 in the equally new National Women’s Soccer League, insta-rivals Seattle Reign better watch out for Baby Horse.

 “Losing one game,” Morgan said in a recent interview, “feels worse to me than winning five games feels good.” 

Women’s soccer itself needs that uncompromising passion right now. Since the 1999 World Cup made cultural icons of Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, two national pro leagues have crashed and burned. When Women’s Professional Soccer collapsed last year, team owners complained of seven-figure annual losses. “This is probably the last opportunity for women’s pro soccer to survive,” says coach Cindy Parlow Cone, a fierce 34-year-old who left an assistant position at the University of North Carolina to lead the Thorns. “I wanted to be part of it.”

Despite the gloomy history, Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson is betting that the Thorns can capture at least some of the frenzied passion that has turned his (male) Major League Soccer team’s matches into a hot ticket. His formative roster certainly looks good on paper. Besides Morgan, the Thorns also boast former University of Portland (and perennial Team Canada) star Christine Sinclair, a fiery striker who chops defenses to pieces. Together, Morgan and Sinclair should display some of the most formidable women’s soccer firepower ever assembled. 

And that raises the key question: will talent be enough?

On January 29, 2012, Morgan and the rest of Team USA partied in a Vancouver, British Columbia, hotel bar after winning an Olympic qualifying tournament. Players sipped beers and belted out a half-decent, celebratory rendition of “Proud Mary.” 

The next morning, WPS folded. The players, most suddenly unemployed, solemnly packed bags and called cabs.

The US Soccer Federation, the game’s organizing body in this country, led the rescue operation. Financial hubris and high overhead had doomed the first two women’s leagues. This time, the USSF allied with Mexico and Canada on a new concept: the nascent league will draw its most elite talent from the three countries’ national teams; the soccer federations of the US, Mexico, and Canada will pay those players. Local owners will pay everyone else under a relatively tame salary cap of about $500,000 per 20-player team. The league itself will operate with a skeletal staff.

This was enough to convince Paulson, who spent over $30 million on the Timbers’ Major League Soccer franchise fee, to take a much cheaper risk. “When it became clear that US Soccer would pay some player salaries, it changed the model,” Paulson says. “Plus, we’re sitting in the best market in the country.” Paulson and the team decline to reveal start-up costs for the women’s team, but one knowledgeable national industry insider estimates the Thorns’ launch will cost a few hundred thousand dollars. 

Paulson says he doesn’t expect immediate profits, but adds that supporting the women’s game “is the right thing to do.” (No other MLS owner invested in the new league.) By mid-February, fans had reserved 5,000 season tickets—far more than any team in either failed league ever sold. (While fans have held meetings to prepare for the Thorns’ arrival, supporters will likely “brand” themselves separately from the famed Timbers Army.) 

“She’s the complete player. She’s fast. She’s good in the air. She can finish.”
—Alex Morgan, on teammate Christine Sinclair

The huge crowds that watch the US national squad have never translated into strong followings for local teams. Peter Wilt, a renowned soccer executive who launched both the Chicago Fire of MLS and the Chicago Red Stars of WPS, warns that while local enthusiasm gives Paulson an advantage, the Thorns need to catch on fast. “In Portland, which will have a built-in audience right away, fans need to feel the team is theirs,” Wilt says. “Emotional connections need to be created quickly. Otherwise, it could be one and done.”

On that note, the Thorns will probably be fun to watch. Defender Rachel Buehler is known as the “Buehldozer.” Midfielder Tobin Heath passes with the casual ease of a blackjack dealer flipping cards. Karina LeBlanc, a mohawked Canadian goalkeeper with a peppery personality, will protect the net. 

The league’s future remains to be seen. In the short term, some say the Thorns could do what no Portland professional team has since 1977.

“When you look at the roster,” ESPN soccer journalist Beau Dure says, “it’s easy to say, ‘That’s your championship team right there.’”

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