Perhaps my most powerful experience of soccer fandom, amidst years of following MLS, the English Premier League, and the World Cup, came in a college basketball arena at the University of Portland (UP) in the early winter of 2005. Along with a thousand locals, I watched a projected ESPN feed from Texas of a national championship game where my little University team (~3500 students) was playing the giants of UCLA (~38000 students). It had been a dramatic season including national team regulars, local heroes, legendary coaches, and community passion; a playoff game against Notre Dame had sold out in a matter of minutes in a frenzy of community interest, and the local news was packed with attention to each stage of the tournament.
As the championship game began the tension was palpable, only to be broken by a glorious slice of the beautiful game—92 seconds in a passing sequence created space on the opposite side of the field for a free runner to receive and finish with verve. The crowd exploded and, as if to reward our joy, the goals kept coming. After 90 minutes it was 4-0 Portland. The players on the screen were pictures of ecstasy. The basketball arena was a sea of moist eyes. The weeks that followed included front page newspaper articles, a downtown parade, a commemorative book written by a local journalist, and the communal feeling sports fans remember for the rest of their lives. It was, in its own way for our corner of the Pacific Northwest, England in July of 1966, Barcelona winning the European Cup, Didier Deschamps lifting the Jules Rimet trophy in Paris. On a local level it was that rare moment when soccer in the United States means something.
And, to make it even more rare, the players were all women.
Women’s Soccer Rules
Here’s an audacious claim: The University of Portland is the only place in the world boasting high-level teams for men and women where the single most popular sport is women’s soccer. Although I’d be pleased if someone could prove that claim false, the NCAA Division I Portland Pilots are unquestionably a rare breed. The women’s team has been the national attendance leader in college soccer for either men’s or women’s teams for three straight years (2006, 2007, and 2008). They significantly outdraw both a reasonably successful men’s soccer team and an improving men’s basketball team. The Pilot women are a Portland soccer phenomenon that generates attention and loyalty of the type that WPS teams, women’s national teams, and other high-level women’s teams around the world both crave and deserve. So what makes the Pilots outliers? And what lessons might they offer about promoting women’s soccer, and soccer in the US more generally?
Before addressing those questions I want to acknowledge that my claims of audacious success for women’s soccer at UP are relative. The average women’s soccer crowd is still only pushing 4,000 fans (in a stadium that seats around 4,800). Revenue from the program is still relatively small—though I do not know the exact figures, people I talked to suggested that at best the women’s soccer program comes close to breaking even. But the institution has continued to invest in women’s soccer because it is widely considered a positive contributor to the broader community. The program’s devoted following includes many people outside of the university and the local soccer world. Given the limited global attention to women’s soccer as a spectator sport, I’d argue that relative success is still worth considering as a means towards understanding how Americans come to take soccer seriously.
Background of the program
I’ve worked at the University of Portland for five years. I’ve attended many games of both the men’s and women’s teams—but I’ve had no actual connection to the programs other than having an occasional player as a student in class. For present purposes I consider myself a sort-of recreational ethnographer who has been collecting amateur observations throughout the years, and recently decided to make a few slightly more formal inquiries (by wilson santiago). So last week I sat down with some of the fans and promoters of the UP women’s team, and put out a query to the “Pilot Nation” discussion board for opinions from the hardcore fans about what makes the Pilot women outliers in the American soccer world. Although the general consensus was that the relative success of women’s soccer at Portland is “unquantifiable,” as a social scientist I think with the right interpretive lens everything can be at least effectively organized (if not fully quantified)—and, as with most cultural phenomena, that starts with some history.
No matter who you talk to, the Pilots’ success starts with the series of odd circumstances that made former West Ham and Cardiff City defender Clive Charles the “director of soccer” at the University of Portland (a story partially told, with some inaccuracies, in a history of several West Ham players titled East End Heroes, Stateside Kings and in another book by the same author titled The Black Hammers—relevant parts of which have been excerpted by Pilot faithful). Charles came to Portland to play for the NASL version of the Timbers, and after a few other vagabond soccer travels had come back to town to work with youth soccer programs—initially focusing on a local high school team.
Charismatic and cocksure, when he interviewed for the job as men’s soccer coach at the University of Portland he claimed he could take the team to the “final four” of the national championships within three years. The interviewers simply laughed. UP was a small and quiet regional Catholic University with modest ambitions and limited athletic success. Competing for national championships was not on the radar. But Clive (he is still largely known around town by first name only), had a certain type of genius and some fortuitous recruits—after his hiring the men’s team made the “final four” in his second year.
The most famous of the early recruits was Kasey Keller, who in 1988 was a long-haired golden boy in at North Thurston High School in nearby Lacey Washington. As Keller went on to an outstanding four years at UP and then to establish himself as one of the most successful American professionals, other aspiring American starlets followed—including Steve Cherundolo, Conor Casey, Heath Pearce, Kelly Gray, Luis Robles, and Nate Jaqua. The success of the men’s program also helped inspire the construction of Merlo Field. A simple but accommodating 4,800 capacity soccer specific stadium, opened in 1990, that on its best days creates an electric atmosphere for the game. It’s the closest thing American soccer has to the intimate community grounds at the lower-levels of the European game.
In 1989, in a move that seems to have initially been more pragmatic than visionary, Clive added on duties as head coach of the women’s program so that he could earn some extra income and have broader control of soccer programs. The next year a star female player from one of Clive’s youth club teams, Tiffeny Milbrett, enrolled at UP specifically to play for Clive and the women’s team quickly became a national player. In 1995 both the men’s and women’s team made the final four, and for a number of years both programs drew a good bit of attention in the American soccer world with the men generally maintaining a slight edge in prestige. The women were important, but not yet kings.Villa Drum Squad