Illustration: Paine Proffitt

Howler X Thorns FC | By Any Other Name: Thorns FC's well established place in Soccer City, USA

Editor’s note: This season, the Portland Timbers, Thorns FC and Howler Magazine have been collaborating on a special series that explores soccer in Portland and the city’s influence on the game in the United States. Presenting our fourth story in the series, Gwendolyn Oxenham examines the incredible story of the Portland Thorns and their unique place in Soccer City, USA and the global soccer stage.

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“Dodgy keeper, dodgy keeper.”

Any opposing keeper, male or female, who has traveled to Portland and stood in goal on the North End of Providence Park has heard the chant. Thorns FC keeper Nadine Angerer, of Germany, heard it whenever she stood in her box at the field’s opposite end, but she could never quite make out what the club’s die-hard supporters, aka, the Rose City Riveters, were shouting. It turns out that Dodgy Keeper, sung by thousands of fans and echoed off the side of the stadium, sounds a whole lot like the name of a certain teenage pop star.

"Why," a puzzled Angerer asked one of the supporters, "do you guys chant 'Justin Bieber'?"

Ever since, during the half-game that Angerer stands in the North End goal, the Riveters affectionately chant “Justin Bieber, Justin Bieber.” They also borrow from the tune to “Come on Eileen” to sing “Come on Nadine, you make saves for our team, at this moment you mean everything.”

If anybody deserves her own chant, it’s Angerer. She’s the only goalkeeper, male or female, to be named FIFA World Player of the Year. She’s also the only keeper to keep clean sheets throughout an entire World Cup. Her German side won back-to-back Women's World Cup titles in 2003 and 2007. She’s captained her national team since 2011, and has played for professional teams in Germany, Sweden and Australia. But she says she’s never experienced anything like Portland.

She likes to tell the story about the time she was sitting on a friend’s steps. A friendly man in his 70s walked by and they started chatting, about Portland, about Germany. Eventually, he invited her to come and look at a magnificent tree. For 15 minutes they discussed the tree. She doesn’t remember the details—“It was big, it was purple”—but she liked how warm the man was, how enthusiastic, how open. It’s interactions like this one that make Angerer love the city, and that make the city love Angerer—a professional soccer player, frequently hailed as the best women’s keeper in the world, who takes 15 minutes to chat with an old man about a tree.

Angerer will close out her career at the end of this NWSL season, and there’s nowhere she’d rather retire.

“I’ve played for so many clubs,” she says. “But here in Portland there is something special. I’ve never had this kind of energy on the club level. When I came back from the World Cup, I had the feeling that I was still at the World Cup.”

Photo: David Blair

This summer, women’s soccer had its spot in the limelight—26.7 million tuned in for the FIFA Women’s World Cup final, shattering the previous record for most watched U.S. soccer game, male or female. But when the World Cup ends, the tendency is for women’s soccer to make a quick exit from the national conversation. Players return to their professional leagues and the quiet of half-empty stadiums. Even well-established pro leagues in Europe still average roughly 1,000 fans per game. The low attendance rates make it challenging to entice sponsors and TV time, which makes it hard to stay in the public consciousness. Here in the United States, two leagues have folded, but the NWSL is finishing its third season strong and soccer fans are urged to support their local women’s teams so that another generation of talent won’t be told there is no place for them to play.

But in Portland, it’s not a we-really-should-support-our-women thing, it’s a holy-smokes-have-you-been-to-a-Thorns-game thing? In Portland, women’s soccer has tipped. Providence Park is conveniently located in the middle of a city that has always loved the offbeat, the alternative. It’s a city with a long-established soccer culture, where many die-hard Portland Timbers fans are also die-hard Thorns FC fans. It’s a city where a league record crowd of 21,144 showed up on a Wednesday night for an NWSL match. It’s a city where the average attendance is more than triple that of the rest of the league.

The roster reads like the FC Barcelona of women’s soccer, featuring superstars from four continents. Three Thorns FC players will grace the cover of the EA SPORTS’ FIFA 16 video game—Christine Sinclair for the Canada edition, Alex Morgan for the U.S., and Steph Catley for Australia. (Catley made the cover through a vote—and you can bet Portland fans backed their Australian Thorn.)

Beyond an out-of-this-world level of play, the Thorns also offer Portlanders a return to the soccer hinterlands, the vast uncharted territory that is women’s professional soccer. Back in 1975, 20,000 fans filled the stadium to support the Timbers; now, they once again have a chance to be part of a great beginning—to help take the women’s game where it has never gone before.

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Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

There was a point, after a match against rival Seattle Reign FC, that the visiting supporters took issue with some of the more, shall we say, colorful chants coming from the North End Rose City Riveters. A frenzy of internet comments from scandalized Reign fans ensued: “You shouldn’t use profanity,” “That language is offensive,” and, the Rose City Riveters’ favorite: “Think of the children.” They turned that last one into a scarf: “Think of the children” on one side, “That’s not lady-like” on the other.

Many of the Rose City Riveters—the loud, hundreds-deep crowd that pack sections 106, 107 and 108—are also members of the Timbers Army. Paul Atkinson is active in both.

“There was no way we were going to tone it down,” he says—the concept of “toning it down” for a women’s game being more offensive than any curse word they could have used. The Riveters decided early that there would be no sanitizing the experience, no bleaching of color.

Atkinson’s daughter, Maureen, known as “Mo,” played a big part in the Riveters origin story. Back in 2011, when the Timbers joined MLS, Paul came home and announced to his 12-year-old that they were now the proud holders of season tickets. Atkinson says, “And the first thing she says to me is, ‘So, hey, that’s great—is there a women’s team too?’”

“Uh, no—not in this part of the country,” he answered. Fumbling around for a more heartening response, he added, “But if there ever is, we’ll go!”

So in 2013, after the birth of the Thorns, the Atkinsons were on a long car trip and they got to thinking. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Thorns had something like the Timbers Army? With scarves, chants, all of it?

“We brainstormed, thought about what made the Timbers Army the Timbers Army, and how we could recreate that,” says Mo.

At school the next day, Mo started sketching a design for a scarf on the back of an old math test. A rose on one side, accompanied with the words Thorns Alliance, the same TA acronym as the Timbers Army.

For the other side of the scarf, she wanted a slogan, a phrase, an equivalent to the Timbers’ slogan, “No Pity.” She started playing around with rose expressions until she hit upon a line by Shakespeare from Romeo and Juliet:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

The words “By Any Other Name” are still on the Riveters scarf today. To Portland supporters, its meaning is simple: whether they’re called Timbers or Thorns, whether they’re men or women, Portland will support them.

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Paul posted his daughter’s design on Facebook and soon there were hundreds of comments offering opinions and ideas. This led to a meeting of 50 or 60 people in the Atkinson living room, 75 percent of whom were Timbers Army regulars. They sat down and thought about what a Thorns supporters group would look like.

“It would not be the Timbers Army,” says Mo, “but it would have the Timbers Army aura—with the same sense of place.”

The supporters group—eventually named the ‘Rose City Riveters,’ after World War II icon Rosie the Riveter—is made up of artists and IT folks, lawyers, baristas, bartenders, teenagers, toddlers, men, women, gay and straight people, of all colors and religious beliefs, including none at all.

“They are whoever they want to be,” says Kristen Gehrke, one of the group’s leaders.

There’s Luke Howitt, a soccer-mad British lawyer who lives in Long Beach, Calif., but has season tickets for the Thorns FC.

“For me, it's the closest thing to being at an EPL game that I've experienced,” says Howitt. He flies to Portland for home games, but he also makes the trek to away games, in Kansas City, Houston and Rochester. “I love standing up and cheering for the Thorns in a sea of opposing fans, largely, I think, because we do it the ‘right’ way—meaning we stand and play drums and chant the whole game.”

And there’s 41-year-old Sunday White, a capo who leads the chants. She  frequently dons a one-piece mechanic’s jumpsuit and ties a rag around her hair to become the Rosie of Providence Park.

“I’ve watched two leagues fold. In Portland, we had the opportunity to do it right. That’s something I wanted to be a part of,” says White. “I already loved the Timbers. The Thorns was the opportunity to get on board again, but with something that hits a little closer to home. These are people that, if I were younger, I could have been them—or had the chance to be them.”

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

The Rose City Riveters have bestowed upon the Thorns the traditions of the Timbers—the scarves, the chants, the smoke bucket that spews red smoke whenever a Portland player scores. Some things get a Thorns spin. When a player scores or a ‘keeper posts a shutout, instead of being presented with a slice of a log, Timbers-fashion, a Thorns player takes home a trio of roses--presented by young girls from community partner Girls, Inc. (When Thorns keeper Michelle Betos scored a ridiculous diving header to equalize a match in stoppage time, she was given a full crown made of roses.)

Perhaps the greatest Portland tradition is the tifo—the billowing banners dreamt up and created by hundreds of fans over many hours. “The day before our home game, we can tell when there is going to be a tifo—we can see the ropes they have to set up,” says Sinclair. “And it’s always like, oh man, what are they going to do?”

“I’m always blown away by how creative and brilliant our fans are,” says midfielder Allie Long. “I can’t ever believe how big, how good, how much time they must have taken. It means so much to us.”

In 2014, they created individual pastiches to honor every player on the team—Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” for Alex Morgan, Andy Warhol for Allie Long (“I was pysched when I saw I got Warhol,” she says). The individual portraits were accompanied by a 50-by-50-foot tifo with words from Picasso: “Todo lo que puedas imaginar es real.” “Everything you can imagine is real.” You know, like that dream of playing professional soccer.

Even visiting players can feel the different atmosphere.

“I did not feel like a professional athlete until we went to Portland,” Boston forward and 2014 NWSL Rookie of the Year Jazmine Reeves told The Atlantic.

Portland’s sea of tifo-making, flag-waving, fun-having, profanity-using fans is a message to the rest of the world: this is what women’s soccer can look like, this is the dream.

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Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Portland players all say the same thing: they love their club, this city, and these fans.

Long, the team’s leading goalscorer in 2015, says, "We owe our friends everything." She seems almost apologetic when the list of superlatives she’s reeling off, like “best fans in the world,” doesn’t seem to cut it. But how do you adequately express appreciation for fans like these?

Karina LeBlanc, a former Portland goalkeeper, showed her gratitude by shaving a rose into the side of her head.

In her official team photograph, midfielder Sinead Farrelly wore the supporters’ club bandana knotted in her hair, Rosie-style. “Every time they flash her picture up on that big screen, when I see her wearing that wrap on her head—that’s not a team-issued bandana, that is a fan bandana—every time I see it, it gets me,” says Sunday White.

Six-time World Player of the Year nominee Christine Sinclair thanked the fans on the field. “In the 2013 NWSL Championship in Rochester, New York, when she scored the second goal in the 90th minute, she ran to the group of 40 of us who had traveled to New York and saluted us,” says Howitt. “It was incredible.”

“They don’t just stand up and clap whenever you touch the ball,” Sinclair says. “They know when they’re witnessing a good play and when they’re not.” Sincy (as the Riveters refer to her in song: “Sincy Sincy you’re so fine, you’re so fine, you blow our mind”) appreciates all of it: the sound, the red smoke, the moment when a kid hands her a rose. “It’s not the rose of course—it’s that interaction, it’s knowing how much they care.”

Long keeps her roses in her locker, some dozen-odd stems wilted next to her cleats. She loves walking out from the quiet of the locker room to the thundering roar on the field to take her warm up shots in front of the Riveters.

“I’ve knocked over more than one beer—I wish I could run over there and buy the next one.”

You get the feeling Angerer would like to do the same. When I ask if she has anything else she’d like to say about the fans, she says, “No. Everything I want to say, I will say in the stadium—I don’t want to say it to a media outlet. I want to say it directly to the fans.”

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About the Author: Gwendolyn Oxenham is the author of Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-Five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer and the co-director of Pelada, a documentary about pickup soccer games around the world. She has written for The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The New York Times, USsoccer.com and Howler.

About the Illustrator: Paine Profitt is an American-born artist living in England, best known for his sporting works. Proffitt's work includes program covers for his beloved Port Vale as well as West Bromwich Albion, Aberdeen FC, Grimsby Town, Aston Villa, Derby County and Luton Town.

Photo: Brian Costello

 

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