It’s 11:30 in the morning, a drizzly Saturday in Portland. At the Oregon Convention Center, buttoned-up Methodists from around the country and the world are filing in for the church’s 2016 General Conference. Now and then, one of them pauses to shoot a quizzical look at the rag-tag crowd forming on the sidewalk, an incongruous mix of flannel-clad lumberjacks, graying empty-nesters, and punks who wouldn’t look out of place at a WTO protest.
They mostly wear black and red, draped in scarves reading “GET STUCK IN” and “BY ANY OTHER NAME.” These are the Rose City Riveters, the hardcore fans of the best-supported women’s soccer club in the world—and today, they head north to watch their beloved Portland Thorns take on the arch-nemesis Seattle Reign.
It was four years ago that the Thorns became one of eight teams in the newly-formed National Women’s Soccer League. Mo Atkinson, then 14, was sitting in algebra class one day. “I just sketched a scarf idea onto my test,” Atkinson said via email. “My original name on the scarf was the Thorns Alliance… The back said ‘By Any Other Name'”—a Romeo and Juliet reference (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”), that serves as a promise of unconditional support for the women of this club.
Atkinson showed the sketch to dad Paul, and the seed was planted. The family held the first meeting at their Northeast Portland home, a mix of USWNT fanatics and Timbers Army regulars in attendance. The name, a nod to Rosie the Riveter, was born at that meeting, but didn’t become official until some weeks later. “Trademarks stopped us from using the word ‘Thorns,’” explains Atkinson.
It’s well known that the Thorns have found the secret sauce when it comes to attracting what counts, in the world of women’s club sports, as hordes of fans: in 2015, the team averaged more than 15,000 fans, on par with some MLS teams. The team sold out 21,000-seat Providence Park in their final home game last season.
More than numbers, though, what impresses about a Thorns home game is the atmosphere. The Riveters’ game-day presence is huge; the group fills the whole north end of Providence Park, and their chants are audible blocks away from the stadium. When the crowd shouts “PTFC” for the girls in red, the air is every bit as charged as it is for their MLS counterparts, the Timbers. But the group’s most visible contribution is the huge tifos they raise before matches, cleverly designed and vibrantly painted, often centered around deep-cut cultural references.
One display, a nod to ubiquitous Instagram shots of the Portland airport carpet, showed eleven shoes, each in the colors of a different flag, clustered in a circle on the PDX floor. Another, backed by a Picasso quote, “Todo lo que puedas imaginar es real,” featured a rendition of each player as a famous painting—Alex Morgan as Girl with the Pearl Earring, Allie Long as a Warhol.
One of the main draws of the supporters’ buses—the reason the Riveters were lined up outside the convention center—is that they provide an opportunity to drink en route to Seattle. There’s no booze at the Reign’s home pitch, Memorial Stadium, so fans have to squeeze in their drinking before the game. But before the party starts, today’s bus captain, Wendy Broussard, has announcements: make sure you have your ticket; pick up your garbage; don’t get too drunk; tip the driver. It’s a reminder that like any organization, the Riveters, in practice, are as much about logistics as passion—and as much about respect as rowdiness.
Somebody taps the keg (Two Thorns, a Thorns-themed cider by Corvallis, Oregon ciderhouse 2 Towns) and the show gets on the road. Broussard is seated with her wife, Dawn Bauman, and a capo who didn’t want her name used. People start passing baked goods around—apple pies and “rivets,” which are shortbread cookies topped with white chocolate, coconut, and strawberries. “This is what the bus ride is about,” Bauman quips. That, and the kegs.
I ask the trio what they attribute the Riveters’ success to. Some of it is concrete, and stems from the same factors that have paved the way for the success of the club itself. For one thing, Portland is basically a two-sport market—the Trailblazers are city’s only non-soccer team in a top-tier league.
In addition, like the Thorns, who can attribute much of their success to their affiliation with the Timbers, the Riveters have benefitted from the resources—human, financial, and organizational—of an existing supporters group, the Timbers Army. Both groups are under the purview of the 107ist (107 Independent Supporters Trust, named for the section of Providence Park the Timbers Army sprang up in), essentially the fundraising and outreach arm of the two groups. To join the Riveters, you just show up and chant; to join the 107ist, you have to pay membership dues. The two groups share a tifo-painting space, paint and fabric, and the rigging in Providence Park, all paid for with 107ist money.
Both sides also take their charity work seriously. “We’re doing a drive at every game this year,” says Holly Duthie, one of three steering committee members. “Last time it was oral care products—toothpaste, toothbrushes, mouthwash. People brought piles of stuff.” The Riveters mostly work with women-related charities, but have also worked with the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon. And 107ist money goes to everything from food banks to planting trees to building soccer fields.
“It’s a business, really,” says Lexi Stern, one of three steering committee members and the communications director for both the Riveters and the Timbers Army (There’s enough overlap in membership that it can be hard to tell where the Timbers Army stops and the Riveters begin). “It’s not making any profits, but you have to have enough savvy to keep things running.”
Beyond the fundraising and logistical expertise that already existed in Portland’s supporter subculture, the Riveters have benefitted from a culture of cohesiveness. They are well aware of the ease with which supporters groups can fragment along ideological lines, and keeping a united front is a core value for both the Timbers Army and the Riveters.
“We knocked that stuff out right off the bat,” the anonymous capo says, of the in-group bickering that inevitably happens in any sufficiently large organization. “We tried to include everybody instead of fighting… I think everyone understood the importance of having a cohesive unit.”
It’s not that nobody argues. “There’s a lot of debate,” says Stern. “There’s a tension still between the mom-and-children element versus the badass element,” she says, referring to the longstanding argument over what demographic soccer, particularly women’s soccer, should be marketed towards.
“Badass tends to win,” laughs Duthie.
The question of all-out passion versus family friendliness is one the Riveters have wrestled with since the beginning. For the most part, the leadership’s stance is clear. “You can’t make it for the soccer kids and soccer moms,” says Duthie. She and Duthie recall the scene at a Sky Blue FC game they attended. “They were really marketing to six-year-olds,” Stern remembers.
“And the six-year-olds didn’t care! They were all playing on their iPads, the parents were on their phones, nobody cared,” Duthie finishes.
On the other hand, the “badass element” has stirred some controversy at Memorial. The anonymous capo recounts a run-in with a Seattle fan at a previous away match: “This guy turned to me and said, ‘excuse me, I’m trying to watch the match.’ I said, ‘I don’t think you understand soccer supporters.’ He said, ‘this isn’t what I came for.’ I said, ‘fuck you, buddy.’” (She holds up two middle fingers.) “Then [the Reign] scored, like, six goals. But you know what? If we’d scored six goals, he’d have been gone at halftime. I’m there the whole game, no matter what.”
At the group’s heart, that all-in support—with or without the middle fingers—is what the Riveters are about, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by the team.
“It’s a really special thing, playing for these fans,” says Thorns midfielder Tobin Heath. “They’re really your fans, no matter if you’re having a great game or a bad game… I think as players, we’re constantly talking about how much we appreciate them.”
The feeling is mutual. “We’re gonna owe a debt to those players,” the anonymous capo says. As always with women’s sports, the conversation is inevitably not just about sports, but also justice. The NWSL is the third attempt at a women’s professional league in the US, and the price of its continued solvency falls, in part, on the players’ backs: the league’s minimum salary is still just $7,200. The Riveters are keenly aware of the inequity women in sports face. In many cases, that’s why they do this work.
“I thought, ‘look at all these little girls that are at Timbers matches,’” the capo continues, recalling why she got involved. “Look at the daughters of the Timbers players… if I do this for five years, and it helps make sure that there’s a league for Mila Nagbe to run out on the pitch someday with ‘Nagbe’ on her back–” she pauses a half-breath. “That, to me, is why I continue to want to do this.”
Despite their pride at being the biggest, rowdiest supporters’ group in the league, the Riveters are quick to point out they’re far from the only one. “We have to be careful and not say that other teams don’t do this,” Bauman says. “All of them have a supporters group, they just aren’t as big as the Riveters. But they’re extremely passionate. They work hard.”
In general, hopes are high that the atmosphere at Providence can be cultivated elsewhere. “Everyone’s like, ‘Portland, they’re the outlier, we could never do what they do,’” says Stern. “Yes you can! Please, upstage us!” She points to the record-breaking attendance at the Orlando Pride’s first match as evidence it can be done.
As we round a corner and the Seattle skyline comes into view, a song breaks out, to the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine:
Build a bonfire
Build a bonfire
Put Seattle on the top
Put Orlando in the middle
And we’ll burn the fucking lot
I ask the trio how they feel about the Seattle Reign. This is a fierce rivalry, one that Cascadian soccer fans are steeped in from infancy. Do they feel real animosity toward their neighbors to the north?
The general consensus is: not really. “I have a lot of respect for Laura Harvey,” Bauman says. “The Predmores, too. They have a great organization, and they do good work in the community.”
“Plus, we’re still at the stage where it doesn’t feel possible to hate a women’s team,” adds the capo. “I recognize the sacrifices these players are making.” As “Build a Bonfire” degenerates into a simpler chant—“fuck Seattle!”—she adds, with a grin, “That’s what I want, though. I want women’s soccer to be so big I can hate another team.”