A new model for women's soccer?

After several false starts and failures to build on the US women's team's successes, the NWSL brings new hope

Fans of the Portland Thorns unfurl a banner honoring the team.
Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Thorns FC

Rachel Buehler, an American international soccer player and, as of earlier this year, a member of the Portland Thorns soccer team, recalled one of the moments when she realized that nothing in her career had quite prepared her for playing soccer in Portland, Ore.

"We had our own cheering section, the Rose City Riveters, and before our final home game, they made a tifo (banner) of us where they had us all painted as superheroes, and they rolled it down right after the national anthem," she said. "I'd never seen anything like that or been any part of anything like that before. It was awesome."

Buehler has seen some extraordinary sights in her time. She scored a goal in the United States' opening game of the 2011 Women's World Cup — the tournament that made Abby Wambach a household name. Buehler played all but 38 minutes of the U.S. team's run to the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics. She has played more than 100 times for her country (scoring in her hundredth appearance) and generally been at the heart of what has become, over the past two decades, perhaps the greatest dynasty of women's international team sports in the world. But the years between those highs have until now tended to be marked by a much more modest sporting life, as women's U.S. domestic leagues have repeatedly struggled and failed.

Those previous attempts tried to build on the momentum of the high-profile global successes of the U.S. national team but foundered for lack of crowds, investment or infrastructure — or just on the egos of individual owners — stalling the momentum not just of those leagues but also, as Buehler puts it, "an entire generation of players lost to the sport every time a league fails. Stability is crucial."

So her surprise was understandable when, stepping out to make her home debut for the Thorns in the new National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), she was greeted by a crowd of 16,479 — many of them crossover fans of the Portland Timbers, the city's Major League Soccer (MLS) team, whose owner, Merritt Paulson, has bought wholesale into the Thorns project and the fledgling league.

Rachel Buehler of the Portland Thorns.
Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Thorns FC

"I think we all expected, 'Portland, you know, they'll be pretty good fans,' but from the moment we stepped out for the warm-up for the first game, we couldn't hear ourselves because they were chanting the whole time," Buehler said. "We were all like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is what it's like to play in Portland.'"

Portland soccer has always been something of an outlier in the United States, with excitement for the sport in the area exceptionally high, but Buehler and the Thorns may just be at the vanguard for a breakthrough in how women's professional soccer is organized and perceived in this country. Paulson sees the Thorns and the Timbers as an integral part of one sporting club. He called his involvement a "moral obligation — I thought that we really owed it to women's soccer to put our best foot forward."

Not a 'no-brainer'

The team was formed alongside the NWSL in a bid to support its initially modest aim to establish a stable professional soccer league for women in the United States and to provide an ongoing domestic base for national-team players.

The new league, administered by the U.S. Soccer Federation in collaboration with eight team owners and the Canadian and Mexican federations, developed its own rules under the executive directorship of former U.S. women's team general manager Cheryl Bailey. The teams and league had very little prep time before the first season this year: Just four and a half months passed from the announcement of the league to the first game. Speaking from the vantage point of the first full offseason, Bailey seemed relieved when talking about the outcome.

"To think about putting all the rules in place, to having a schedule, to every team putting a staff in place and getting a travel schedule together ... actually having the time now to step back and get things organized, we realize just how quickly it was put together, and it was amazing in some respects that we were able to pull off the season that we did," she said.

The new league borrowed elements of MLS-style allocation processes to send international players from the three participating federations to teams around the country.

As it happened, this allocation process meant that Alex Morgan, the current poster girl for the U.S. women's team, and free-scoring Canadian striker Christine Sinclair both ended up in Portland. They gave the fledgling league one of its early iconic moments when, with the team down to 10 women and holding a slender lead in the championship game, the two combined for the goal that finished off a challenge from Wambach and the Western New York Flash.

Paulson is happy that that success fed into the "winning culture" he wants to build in Portland.

"The Timbers saw the video footage of fans greeting the Thorns players at the airport and 4,000 at the return to the stadium after winning that game," Paulson said. "And I'm sure in their minds they were thinking, 'My goodness, if it was like this for the NWSL, what's it going to be like if we win an MLS title here?'"

Despite the excitement and enthusiasm around the team now, Paulson admits he didn't jump at the idea of getting involved with the women's league.

"I'd be lying if I said we didn't surpass my wildest expectations in terms of the success we had on and off the field," he said. "I had to be convinced to launch the team — it wasn't a no-brainer for me."

Long-term vision

Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson.
Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Thorns FC

The fact that Paulson did step up, at the behest of his friend and U.S. Soccer supremo Sunil Gulati, speaks to a new generation of owners and entrepreneurs who may make natural allies rather than obstacles for women trying to ensure that female athletes — and fans — are recognized.

Laura Gentile, whose ESPN W project last week hosted its fourth annual Women in Sport summit, said Paulson is "the type of thinker and the type of supporter (women's soccer) certainly needs."

"I think if you look at the new soccer league, everybody wants it to be a huge blockbuster success out of the gate," she added. "But with more people like Merritt behind it, who believe and have a longer-term vision, it's going to happen."

Gentile, a marketing and ESPN veteran, founded ESPN W in 2010, specifically to "create a destination for women who love sports." She wryly contrasts the male marketing stereotype of the sports fan ("He paints his face, he's crazy at the tailgate," she said) with the challenges her sport confronts in the depiction of female athletes and fans.

"We're showing women competing — and they're sweating, and they're hustling, and they're diving, and they're happy, and they're smiling, and they're winning, and they're losing," she said. "Women are complex, and we're really just trying to get into those layers and that complexity."

Part of that complexity comes not only in the sense of cooperative duty that senior female athletes, administrators and media leaders like Gentile feel toward one another but also in their sense of being part of a continuum. The generations of women whose struggles gave them a platform — and the next generation of young female athletes and fans — tend to be at the forefront of their thinking.

In part, there's a realpolitik of building and sustaining structures that permit the type of traction that women's soccer, for example, has historically been unable to gain and of ensuring that those achievements are recorded to be built on. In part, though, this spirit of cooperation comes from an idealism about sports that is an inadvertent effect of generations of institutionalized sexism.

"We have an innate respect and understanding for female athletes and where women's sports are," said Gentile. "So we know that it's kind of still a battle, if you will, for attention and resources and credibility. And a lot of us, you play at a Division I level even in this country, you don't get a lot of fans, and you don't get a lot of press, but you really play for the love of the game. So on some level we're still really celebratory of the purity of sports," she said with a laugh. "You don't see a lot of discussion on the pages of ESPN W about billion-dollar salaries and holdouts and drugs and things like that."

For now, there's some reason to celebrate. What remains to be seen is whether the interest in the new league can be sustained.

Looking at the Portland Thorns again, their success on the field in their debut season, in front of crowds averaging about 13,000, could still turn out to be the kind of geographical and temporal false start that has historically beset both the men's and women's game in the U.S. But the model of a club that regards the men's and women's teams as integral parts of the same organization could prove to be the most influential structural element for success in the long run. 

"As an organization, everybody that we worked with has been incredible," said Buehler of her experience in Portland. "We shared a lot of Timbers staff, but they made us feel like we were their priority as well."

Or, as Paulson said, "It wasn't about 'This is women's' or 'This is different,' you know? We said, 'This is high-level soccer.'"

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