The Pacific Northwest may be the most soccer-mad region in the country, and its NWSL teams are no exception.The reigning FIFA World Player of the Year stood in front of the media, gushing about the atmosphere at the home opener, a 3-1 win for the reigning champions.
The next day, the team's regional rival - inspired by a world class midfielder signed from Arsenal in the offseason - won 2-0 to go top of the table.
It sounds like something from Germany or Spain, but it isn't. It's the National Women's Soccer League - specifically the Portland Thorns and Seattle Reign - and perhaps no where else in the world does the women's side of the game have a higher ceiling or more loyal following.
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The Thorns might be the best-supported women's side on the planet. Their average attendance of 13,320 in 2013 was better than two Major League Soccer teams, the San Jose Earthquakes and Chivas USA, and a 14,124-strong home opener in 2014 has them beating five of the 19 clubs in MLS. A large part of that success has been driven by the Rose City Riveters, the team's supporters' group. With tifo and songs, the atmosphere at a Thorns game is sometimes indistinguishable from a Timbers match. The impressive showing and enthusiasm certainly backs up Portland's claims of being the country's soccer capital.
The intensity was not lost on goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, the 2013 FIFA World Player of the Year.
"It felt like I played a World Cup game today, it was amazing," gushed the Germany international after her side defeated FC Kansas City 3-1 on Apr. 26. "I talked with (Thorns captain Christine Sinclair) before, and she said, 'You are gonna love the fans, they're amazing,' and yeah, she was right.
"I think no club in the world has fans like we have here in Portland."
As fantastic as the Thorns' support is, the league's strongest group might play a couple hours up I-5. In the shadow of the Space Needle, the first-place Seattle Reign are 4-0-0, have scored 10 goals and conceded only one. The team's most marketable faces are U.S. internationals Hope Solo and Sydney Leroux, but equally important might be a pair of British midfielders: Wales captain and defensive midfielder Jessica Fishlock and Scottish playmaker Kim Little. That's not even taking into account the team's injured superstar, U.S. national team midfielder Megan Rapinoe.
A strong Pacific Northwest might be key if the NWSL is to buck the trend of short-lived professional women's soccer leagues in the USA, with Portland performing a function similar to how the Seattle Sounders helped revitalize MLS. Perhaps ironically, the Seattle Reign's attendance is lagging behind: average gates hovering around 2,300 are well below the league average. But with a move from suburban Tukwila to downtown Seattle and a stylish, winning side, those figures should be set to improve.
The NWSL is, along with a handful of European leagues and the Japanese league, considered among the strongest in the world. But unlike most of top women's clubs abroad, the majority of NWSL clubs aren't linked to a men's team; only two of the league's nine teams, the Thorns and Houston Dash, share ownership with their local MLS sides.
For now, the most important thing the NWSL can do is to simply continue to exist, similar to how MLS established itself in the late '90s and early '00s. Cascadia will be a part of that. And if the league is to thrive, Cascadia will surely lead the way.
Portland - Timbers owner Merritt Paulson was bitten by an alligator, and that might be the least embarrassing thing about the Timbers right now. They went to Houston last week and got out with a point, but the Timbers are still winless almost two months into the season.
Coming up: D.C. United was the worst team in MLS last year, but the capital club is much improved in 2014 and has won three of its last four. Fabian Espindola (4 goals, 3 assists this season) is flourishing for the RFK side. Saturday, May 3, 7:30 p.m. PT - MLS LIVE
Seattle - The attacking triumvirate of Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and, somewhat surprisingly, Lamar Neagle, looks unstoppable right now. Last week's 4-1 win over the Colorado Rapids saw the trio pick up a collective four goals and two assists. The three have already scored a combined 14 goals this season -- better than 17 of the 18 other teams in MLS.
Coming up: John Hackworth brings his Philadelphia Union and its seven-game winless streak to CenturyLink Field. What's more, the Union are without a goal in 190 minutes of play. Saturday, May 3, 7 p.m. PT - MLS LIVE
Seattle will then welcome FC Dallas to the Emerald City in midweek top-of-the-table clash. A Clint Dempsey-inspired Sounders came back to win 3-2 in Dallas last month and end a three-game winning streak for the Hoops, but FCD is the only other team in the league with an attack capable of keeping up with the Rave Green. Wednesday, May 7, 7 p.m. PT - MLS LIVE
Vancouver - The Whitecaps had a late comeback to take a point off a strong side for the second week in a row with their 2-2 draw against Real Salt Lake, but Carl Robinson's men haven't won since March, and that's not good enough for a Western Conference side with playoff ambitions.
Coming up: The 'Caps may have had some luck with late combacks in recent weeks, but they'll come up against the true masters of the art when they host the San Jose Earthquakes. What's more, San Jose is four points behind Vancouver and the last playoff spot with a pair of games in hand. Saturday, May 3, 4 p.m. PT - MLS LIVE, TSN2
And then in midweek, the 2014 Canadian Championship kicks off with the Whitecaps visiting Toronto FC. Vancouver has finished runner-up in the national tournament for the last five straight years. Wednesday, May 7, 4:30 p.m. PT - Sportsnet One
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