The Season of Sports continues…
By Rita Nygren
When I was 13 years old and following my big brothers around everywhere, it was a no brainer to continue playing soccer. I’d been playing co-ed recreational leagues since I was 8, just like the boys had, and so of course I would play when I hit high school. It was Mukwonago High’s first year with a girl’s team, which struck me as odd.
I’d never heard of Title XI. The HEW (Dept. of Health, Education & Welfare) regulations were still being contested.
But in the selfish world of a 13 year old, I didn’t see any reason why there wasn’t already a conference league. And so my friend LeaAnn & I went to try outs, and basically every girl who did was sorted onto the two teams: varsity and junior varsity.
I wasn’t annoyed at being dropped in the JV category. I was not what you’d call a natural athlete. It’s horrible, sometimes, that one’s permanent mental picture of oneself is that 13 year old self: in my case, chunky, uncoordinated, nerdy, acne, always chosen last in sports, shy, and (as my brothers would tease me) all the dexterity of a fern. It was, actually, an honor to be allowed to play on the same team as the popular, talented girls. Our heroes at the time were the stars of the boy’s team – really, they were our only influencers, because the 3 TV channels we got back in the Stone Age had never aired a soccer game. I’d never seen an adult play.
But I knew how to learn, and had been the ball retriever for the guys until I was able to at least be more than a pylon during their pickup games, and then knowledgeable enough to be able to predict what the opposing player was going to do and get a foot in the way. Never fast, but able break up a play — the definition of a high school full back.
After practicing with a coach who HAD played as an adult, I was JV squad captain, and then moved up to varsity in my #9 jersey.
Small town paper shows author stealing a ball as a highschooler.
And then moved on to a college that didn’t have a soccer team of either sex.
Really, it’s not like I was motivated to compete harder. Where could I possibly go with it? But it was fun, and I found a club in Winona to play with — mostly international male students who were patronizing with their play to the three or so gals who’d show up, at least until I ran them over a few times while stealing the ball. Then I moved on to post-college recreational leagues in Madison, which then led to regular indoor games, followed by beer.
In 1999, one of my teammates and I decided we’d go to a professional game. So far, I’d mostly seen European games televised in the bar at the indoor soccer facility. In general, I’d rather play than watch, so I knew little about teams to follow, but delighted in any good play (okay, particularly in any good defensive steal). But this year, there was a women’s World Cup, and there was a game close enough we could drive to.
Madison to Columbus is an 8-hour drive, and Sara and I did it one long road trip, saw the game, stayed in a hotel, and drove home. I camped a lot, but staying over in a hotel was kind of weird for me, and frivolous, particularly to see a sports game. But there on the pitch was Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, Cindy Parlow, and Tiffany Milbrett, and here Sara and I were, on a bench seat in Crew Stadium with 23,101 other people enjoying our ladies trouncing South Korea.
I picked up a Hamm jersey that trip. Her number was 9.
I still play, at my age, in my new hometown in Oregon. I’m faster than I was in high school, but a bit more cautious of my skull and ankles. I certainly see more professional soccer now than I did then.
Several women’s leagues have since attempted to catch hearts and minds in this country since those early World Cups, but each seems to have only a 3-year lifespan. The reason is simply that people don’t go to the matches. Why aren’t they popular? A host of reasons. The women’s sport is trying to break into an entertainment niche that is barely cracked open by the men’s MLS area. the women are competing for recession dollars with their big brother, who backhandedly has encouraged them while expecting the girls to go back to traditional pursuits like beach volleyball, I guess.
The latest incarnation of a North American women’s league, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), managed to talk Portland’s Major League Soccer (MLS) team into doubling their return by investing in a ladies’ team. For a town that calls itself Soccer City, this seems like a reasonable bet. For an MLS team that has the rabid fan base known as the Timbers Army, there should be enough overflow support.
But then a 13-year-old girl asked why the new team, called the Thorns, shouldn’t have their own supporters group. It was a no-brainer for my young friend Mau — of course this new team would have a group similar to the Timbers Army. Her folks, heavily involved with the Army, helped her foster this idea, and the Riveters sprang up. Sure, some of the structure and people were there from the Army, but some were new soccer fans who wanted to watch the gals play.
Mau and Mom at Thorns game in 2013.
Young Maureen is now checking out colleges out of state, but the Riveters really does claim her as a founder of the movement. And in turn, we have to give the Riveters credit for making the Thorns so successful in the league. The average attendance at NWSL game is about 2,500 people. Except for Portland, where our average Thorns game pulls in 13,000. When they talk league averages, they have to throw out Portland for blowing the curve.
The Thorns are definitely profitable. All the other MLS teams look forward (sometimes with trepidation) to playing here at a ‘real’ stadium, with thousands of screaming supporters and fans who make elaborate art for the match. And to be lead out onto the field by local girls’ teams, who may someday be carrying on the legacy.
Tonight I just watched the final for the Women’s World Cup 2015, during which the U.S. simply outplayed and beat Japan in the first 16 minutes. Please, go watch recordings of the first half, it’s mind blowing.
While that series has been going on, the Thorns have been missing seven of their best players, as they were off at the WWC playing for the U.S., and Canada, and Germany. 35,000 people filled the stadium in Vancouver, while I was in a bar-cum-block party with the Riveters (including one guy dressed up as General Patton, I swear). All sorts of men and women in their red, white, and blue were cheering on their nation’s team, and singing chants not fit for a 13 year old girl’s ears.
Folks are hoping that the WWC win will give a bump to women’s soccer attendance everywhere else. (We’ll likely sell out the allowed seats for the next Thorns game when Our Gals come home). And I think that’s a bit of a pity. There’s little else we can do from Oregon to better promote the sport, shy of buying tickets in other cities. It’s a world-class game, but it seems to fall under the radar.
Some folks seem to want to clean up the chants, remove the beer and market the league to soccer moms to take their kids to, but that’s just going to lead to a fan base that believes it’s a token sport for kids, not a REAL sport that entertains adults, worth their time after age 18. Which will lead to a shrinking league, not a growing one, with dedicated supporters for every team, and the next no-brainer for a 13-year-old girl who’s in need of a role model.
© 2015. Rita Nygren is an adrenaline junkie living in Oregon who pursues soccer, off-road bicycling, and other activities all too likely to end in visits to emergency rooms when not sensibly at work in the database mines.