The Portland Thorns Are the Biggest Women's Sports Franchise on Earth
By now, most of what there is to say about the Portland Thorns’ 2017 National Women’s Soccer League championship win has already been said. Some of it—well, you had to be there.
In short: in October, the Thorns traveled to Orlando to face the North Carolina Courage in the league final, almost exactly a year after the Western New York Flash eliminated them in 2016’s semifinals in a deeply painful home loss. The Flash were sold, moved, and rebranded as the Courage, giving Portland a shot at revenge.
Accordingly, the match itself was more of a brawl than a soccer game. In the second minute, Portland’s biggest star, Tobin Heath—a lithe US national team midfielder known for her preternatural skill with the ball—body-slammed the Courage’s Taylor Smith, injuring Smith’s shoulder and sending her to the bench. Three yellow cards, 22 fouls, and one more injury-related substitution later, the Thorns won 1–0. Around 200 Rose City Riveters made the trek to Orlando, and for most of the 90-minute match, they were loud.
Many subsequent events will live on only in the memories of those fans, sworn to an unofficial secrecy. Thorns owner Merritt Paulson tweeted a photo of the scroll-like bar tab he picked up from a bar called Tanqueray’s: it included some 50 shots of whiskey. Supporters danced the Cupid Shuffle with players. The trophy stood on display, alongside a giant cardboard cutout of coach Mark Parsons’s head.
Most Thorns players can walk around in any city in the world and pass for nobodies. But in Portland, we know. We, the fans, know the way Hayley Raso scores goals, the way AD Franch saves them, the way Emily Menges shuts down the best forwards on earth, the look Nadia Nadim wears when she steps up to take a penalty. We know Allie Long loves that the Riveters sing her name to the tune of “Panama” by Van Halen. We know the way Heath lays her whole body on the line for our city. Many of us will never get over that one—the fact that Fucking Tobin Heath, as she’s known around here, chooses us. We are the keepers of these secrets.
The team’s second league title cements its place in what will hopefully, one day, be the long and storied history of women’s soccer. The NWSL is still only five years old, and will inevitably suffer growing pains. But for now, no other women’s franchise in the world—in any sport—can draw nearly 18,000 fans game in, game out.
One day, we hope, women’s soccer will prosper all around the world. Other clubs will sell out stadiums. The stars of women’s teams in Latin America and Europe will be household names, with salaries as lavish as those of their male peers. But for now, Portland is unique. For the women who train and play in obscurity in places where the men’s game holds world-historical importance, Portland is the promised land.