Soccer City USA
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Timbers and the new Portland women’s professional soccer team, exudes confidence at the notion of a new professional league with a team in the Rose City.
“We’ve got the best soccer market, bar none, in the country, and that includes women’s soccer,” he said Wednesday at halftime of the U.S. women’s 5-0 thrashing of Ireland in the latest friendly in the 2012 Fan Tribute Tour. “Getting back to the highest possible level in Soccer City USA is going to be a great process for us. It’s going to be a fun experience.”
The Ireland game was the first played by the U.S. women since the U.S. Soccer Federation announced on Nov. 21 that it would partner with Canada’s and Mexico’s soccer federations to subsidize a new eight-team professional league, which is slated to begin play in 2013.
The new, yet-to-be-named league will be the third attempt to start a professional women’s league in the United States, but the inclusion for the first time of soccer-mad cities such as Portland and Seattle is one of the reasons players and officials are confident that this league will stick.
Major League Soccer’s Timbers sold out every home game of the 2012 season, packing 20,400 raucous fans a game into the Jeld-Wen Field cauldron. The U.S. game drew 10,092 in a game that wasn’t widely publicized and was held on a cold, midweek night in November.
Portland has a history of high-level women’s soccer, particularly at the collegiate level. The University of Portland won two Division I championships in the last decade, in 2002 and 2005, when current national team player and gold medalist from the London 2012 Olympic Games Megan Rapinoe was on the team.
In the new women’s league, the U.S. Soccer Federation will fund up to three national team players per team in the eight-team league. Similar arrangements will exist with the Canadian and Mexican federations as well. Players are allocated based on club preferences, player preferences and overall balance.
Rapinoe and Canada captain Christine Sinclair both played collegiately in Portland at the same time. Both are obvious choices for Paulson.
“There are certainly some players who have ties to Portland that it’s important for us to get,” he said. “I think we’ll have some really good, high-profile players here who do have ties to Portland.”
Rapinoe, a midfielder, is unequivocal in her desire to play for Portland. At media availabilities the day before and immediately following the game Wednesday, she voiced her opinion strongly.
“It’s good to be back in this city — no rain, beautiful weather, great crowd,” she said. “I’d definitely like to end up here, obviously. I have a place here now, and I love the city.”
A further desirable factor is Paulson’s assertion that a few of the new team’s games will be played at Merlo Field on the campus of University of Portland.
“I think it’s actually probably a perfect venue,” Rapinoe said. “A little bit smaller. I mean, this stadium’s great, but to be realistic, I don’t think we’re going to get 20,000 every game.”
One of the biggest stars in the women’s game and another member of the gold-medal winning team in London, Alex Morgan, also has ties to the Pacific Northwest. The striker played for the Seattle Sounders Women of the USL W-League in 2012, and her boyfriend, Servando Carrasco, plays for Seattle Sounders MLS team.
“I love this field (in Portland),” said Morgan, who scored a hat trick in Wednesday’s rout. “It always brings in a great crowd. The stadium’s great. I could probably see myself playing here.”
Overriding the matchmaking of player-to-club and club-to-stadium is an overall sense of excitement about the new league that is palpable in every conversation with players, coaches and management.
“I’m really excited about this league,” Morgan said. “It’s great that both (Portland and Seattle) have women’s teams because it creates that rivalry that comes over from the men’s side.”
The structure of the league, with backing from national federations in the United States, Canada and Mexico and a view toward sustainable spending habits, earmarks it for success, Rapinoe said.
“I think the way that it’s starting now, on a smaller scale, more of a semiprofessional scale, is going to be good,” she said. “To be playing in this stadium and have it sell out would be great, but I don’t think that’s realistic…so playing a little bit smaller venue where the atmosphere is pretty pumping, and then kind of grow it from there (should be the goal).”
As for the mystery team in Portland, its owner said the name and logo would be revealed soon. The only certainty is that it won’t be named after the Timbers, because MLS has a sponsorship deal with Adidas that covers all team names and brands. Paulson said the women’s league likely will have Nike ties.
However, having MLS involved may be a viable direction for the new league in the future because of the pre-existing infrastructure, Paulson said.
“We’ve obviously got the benefit of having a base in place… (but there are) some additional hires we need, most notably on the soccer side: coaches, trainers, that kind of stuff,” he said. “So we will be doing some incremental hiring, but we will be utilizing our existing structure as well.”
With a new fiscal layout and dedicated owners, officials are hoping the third time will be the charm for women’s professional soccer in the United States.