SANDY, Utah – It was a day whose subtext began seeping into the women’s soccer ether the moment the Utah Royals were unveiled, and perhaps no fan had more invested in that subtext than Chelsea Waddell.
She had become a Thorns FC fan at the dawn of the NWSL because, and as a Salt Lake City resident, Portland was her closest team. They also had her favorite player, Tobin Heath, but without a hometown team, it was an easy call. Years later, when she began splitting her time between the Rose City and Utah, her ties to Portland only grew.
This year, however, Waddell’s soccer life has taken on a new dimension. With the beginning of the Royals, Utah finally has a team in the NWSL, and while that doesn’t mean she’ll be relocating her fandom, it did create a unique feeling when, on Saturday, her favorite team met her hometown team on the field.
“I showed up to the Royals home opener with my mom, who is a Royals supporter,” Waddell said, recalling the April 14 match against the Chicago Red Stars at Rio Tinto, “and it was awesome to be able to see such a historic event, not just for Utah but for women’s soccer, which means a lot, to me.”
The next day, she was in Portland, watching her favorite team open its home slate with a 2-1 over the Orlando Pride.
“[Utah] was an awesome time. Sold out crowd. Great experience. Hopped on a plane the next morning, flew to Portland, went pretty much straight to the game. Awesome home-opener for us – we took the win – and to be back with the Riveters, there’s nothing like it. Utah had a great crowd, but there’s nothing like being at Providence Park.”
Ahead of the Thorns’ first visit to her home town, Waddell, living in Portland for the summer, flew back home the Monday before, staying with family ahead of the game. The nearly 40 other Rose City Riveters who made the 765-mile trip east left closer to the weekend, driving in on Friday or flying in Saturday morning.
Alex Staller and Kirsten Hudson were among their numbers. On Friday morning, they set out from Portland with two other Riveters on a trip that would take them close to 14 hours. They made bad time, compared to others, mostly because they had a fifth passenger that needed special attention.
Borrowing an oversized printout of Thorns head coach Mark Parsons’ head from a friend, Staller and Hudson began a journey documented by the #DrivingMarPar hashtag, stopping at every notable spot along their route to put the foam print in the trip’s context.
“Our friend ordered that fathead during preseason,” Staller explained, “inspired by the fact that [Washington supporters’ group] the Spirit Squadron used to have a big fathead of Mark Parsons.”
“We were talking about what to do during the trip, " Hudson remembered, "and [their friend] Tina put a tweet out there that said, ‘hey, does anyone want to take the fathead to Utah?’ I was like, ‘Yes, please, I’d love to.’ So, I picked this bad boy up on Wednesday night and the shenanigans started.”
Inside the gates, the Thorns and Royals played to a stalemate, with former USWNT new kids Amy Rodriguez and Tobin Heath exchanging second-half goals. The Riveters packed almost half a section, towing drums, banners, and 90 minutes of chants from Portland to make a part of Rio Tinto their own.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d get to see the Thorns play in my hometown,” Waddell said. ”My biggest memory from this weekend was being a relatively small group and still being loud enough to get some families to move their seats away from us … Even better was when a few people in the section next to us walked over, grabbed a few chant sheets and joined us.”
For Staller, most of his weekend’s best times happened on the road, from his group’s stops with their Mark Parsons icon to the landmarks dotting the path to Utah.
“Climbing Ensign Peak to stage our best #DrivingMarPar picture and then being blown away by the view at the top,” he said, listing the trip’s high points. “How nice the staff at Rio Tinto were to our group, and that our small group out sang their entire stadium.”
Ultimately, the weekend reminded Waddell why, while Salt Lake City may be home, the Rose City Riveters will always be family.
“It took a lot of time and energy for the people who traveled this weekend to do so,” she explained. “By doing it, they not only show support for their team, and for the league as a whole. I just think that’s a really cool thing.
“I think Utah Royals FC has the power to bring the same kind of support to home and away games that we do. They’ve been set up for a lot of success, but nothing compares to game day in the Rose City."