Why Portland Loves Women's Soccer Like No Other City

The Portland Thorns are a perfect storm of soccer fever, gay rights and feminist empowerment.

The Portland Thorns were down by five goals when the singing started.

It was June 7, 2014: a beautiful day for soccer at 75 degrees, the sun bouncing off the turf at Providence Park and beaming back on the faces of 13,838 spectators—almost all of them Thorns fans.

The match against the Western New York Flash went badly. By the 51st minute, the Thorns trailed 5-0 and their goalie, Nadine Angerer, had been ejected for taking down a Flash player.

Fans of most professional sports teams would have fled for the exits. But many of the Rose City Riveters, the Thorns' die-hard supporters group, instead headed for the beer line.

The singing began in the stadium's north end with a few voices bellowing an old Bill Withers song: "Lean on me, when you're not strong."

There was no miracle comeback: The Thorns lost 5-0. But the singing picked up momentum, made its way through Section 107, then 110.

"We all neeeeed somebody to leeeean on."

"I think I maybe started crying a little bit," says Thorns midfielder Mana Shim, reflecting on that moment. "There's a sense of family, just that this group of people has your back. We're all very hard on ourselves and want to do our best, and the fans never go away."

This week, five of the Thorns' most talented players return from a fresh disappointment.

They played for the U.S. Olympic women's soccer team, which was favored to win gold in Rio de Janeiro, only to be knocked out in the quarterfinals. That was the earliest exit ever for U.S. women's soccer at the Olympics.

Related: Four of the Thorns' U.S. Olympic players talk about what it's like to lose on a global stage.

On Sunday, Sept. 4, the Thorns' Olympians—including Christine Sinclair, who helped Canada win the bronze medal, and Amandine Henry, who competed for France—return to Providence Park for Portland's game against the Boston Breakers.

And they will be greeted as if they'd all won gold medals.

The love between this club and its fans isn't just passionate. It's unprecedented in the history of women's professional sports in the U.S.

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The Thorns' average home attendance this season has risen to 16,772 a game. That's more than double the turnout of all but one of the nine other teams in the National Women's Soccer League. Even soccer-mad Seattle draws only 4,590 per game for Reign matches.

No other U.S. city exceeds an average home attendance of 10,000 for any professional women's sport. Portland surpasses it every other week.

"It's really special," says Thorns midfielder Allie Long. "There are no other fans that support female athletes like they do."

Related: Meet Nadia Nadim, the Afghan refugee who escaped the Taliban and became the Thorns' newest star.

In this country, women vote more than men, watch more movies, buy more books, commit fewer crimes, and graduate from college more frequently. The one thing they don't do anywhere close to as much as men is watch pro sports.

Except in Portland.

Most other NWSL teams market their matches as a family night. In Portland, the games are mother-daughter bonding events, date nights for 30-somethings, and the city's largest outdoor LGBTQ cocktail party—a scene so thirsty that Providence Park has effectively replaced the lesbian bar in Portland's nightlife scene.

"If there's a Thorns home match, I'm reorganizing my weekend around that," says Ryan Brown, a season-ticket holder. "It's where my people are."

The story of how it happened is a perfect storm of soccer fever, gay rights and feminist empowerment. And it started with a grizzled, gum-chomping man named Clive Charles.

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An integral player for early Portland Timbers teams, Charles coached both the men's and women's soccer teams at the University of Portland. He started coaching the men's team in 1986 and added the women's team in 1989, coaching both until his death in 2003. In the process, he transformed the Pilots from a middling program into a buzzsaw.

Under his tutelage, the Pilots had a combined 439-144-44 record, including the 2002 women's NCAA championship in his final season. Charles recruited and coached some of the most recognizable and talented women's soccer players ever to play the game—including Sinclair, who was named the NWSL Player of the Olympics in Rio after scoring the winning goal in Canada's bronze-medal match against host Brazil.

He put "the bluff," as UP is called, on the map, and Portlanders turned out in droves to watch his teams. The Pilots' women's soccer team won a second NCAA title in 2005, cementing the small, Catholic university's reputation as a national power.

"Growing up, we didn't have many pro sports teams—the Trail Blazers were the Jail Blazers—and it was really easy to go to UP games. And the women were better than the men," says Hallie Craddock, a Thorns season-ticket holder. "Having Christine Sinclair for the Thorns is icing on the cake. It was the perfect storm to be like, 'Of course women's soccer is good.'"

But Charles' influence wasn't limited to UP. He and many of his former teammates created a foundation of Rose City soccer via clinics, club teams and academies. Current UP women's soccer coach Garrett Smith, who played for Charles, recalled how Charles began a summer league for female players.

"He brought in all the players, tried to cut the living costs, so professional women would have a place to play," Smith says. "It's simple things like that that start falling into place. The Thorns are reaping the benefits of that now."

The Thorns played their first game in 2013, 10 years after Charles' death at age 51 from prostate cancer.

They joined seven other franchises in the National Women's Soccer League—the third attempt to launch professional women's soccer in the U.S. More than 16,400 spectators showed up to the Thorns' first home game. Then-coach Cindy Parlow Cone said the atmosphere felt like a World Cup.

Thorns matches are no typical family outings. Entire girls' club teams will sit, focused and wide-eyed, only speaking to comment on the intricacies of strategy. Even teenage boys watch the match transfixed.

Until, of course, the Thorns score. Then it's a cacophony of screams and shouts, the Riveters chanting away, scarves fluttering en masse—as thick, red celebration smoke pours from the north end and settles like a fog.

Then a badass young woman emerges from the haze to beat her own chest and celebrate her strength along with 17,000 other people.

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"The No. 1 reason I love the Thorns is, on a philosophical and ideological level, it was so important to me growing up to see these strong women," says Sarah Krabacher, a die-hard fan who makes sure she sits in the same seat in the front row of the north end for every game. "It's very exciting to see women athletes worshiped, by girls and boys."

Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz was a fan of the Leeds United men's professional soccer team while growing up in England, but her family loves the Thorns so much, it spent part of her son's wedding day watching a live YouTube broadcast of a Thorns-Seattle Reign match. (Unfortunately for Fritz, the Reign won 3-1.)

"When I was growing up, girls didn't play soccer at all," Fritz says. Attending Thorns matches "just reminds me every time of how far women have come in my lifetime. The whole experience is wonderful."

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Another aspect of Thorns' matches is even more rare at sporting events.

Chris Henderson, a graduate student in American and sports studies at the University of Iowa, spent several days in Portland interviewing members of the Riveters for an academic paper titled "Two Balls Is Too Many: Stadium Performance, Gender, and Queerness Among Portland's Rose City Riveters Supporters Club."

The recurring theme he found? The north end is "a safe space for queer people."

Craddock, a season-ticket holder who developed a friendship with Krabacher and several others after they met in the north end, says that's a factor in attendance for Thorns matches. "I think there are several reasons, one of which is obviously lesbians," she says with a laugh.

"The pro-queer factor is huge for me," Krabacher adds. "Honestly, a Thorns game is the largest lesbian convention in the world.

"I'm from Idaho, and being a lesbian and being at a Thorns game, with all the pride flags and the tifo they did after the Orlando shooting and all these LGBTQ celebrations, it's something Portland offers that some other places don't."

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Perhaps the most remarkable part of fans' love affair with the Thorns is that it has grown stronger, even when the team's performance has gotten weaker.

After winning the NWSL championship in their first season, the Thorns were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in 2014. Last year, they won just six of 20 matches, failing to even reach the playoffs. Still, fans showed up—and more often.

Average home attendance rose from 13,320 in the Thorns' first season to 15,639 in last year's dismal performance to 16,772 this season. (Disclosure: This author writes copy for Nike, which is a sponsor of the Thorns.)

The Thorns' biggest crowd this season at Providence Park was 19,231 on July 30, when Portland defeated the Seattle Reign 1-0 despite playing without its Olympians. The Thorns fielded a shorthanded team of 15 players, some of them unpaid amateurs, and the crowd cheered louder than ever.

That kind of loyalty is requited.

Long, the Thorns midfielder who recently returned from her first stint on the U.S. Olympic team, recalls a fan tweeting about his 8-year-old daughter getting bullied for wearing a Thorns jersey to school.

"I hate bullying," Long says. "And they were making fun of her, and I was like, 'Oh, heck no." She reached out to the girl, got her tickets to a game, autographed gear, and met her after the match.

"I just have so much respect for our fans," Long says, her eyes flashing as she recounts the story. "Especially if some cute, little girl is getting bullied. She should be proud for wearing that jersey."

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