The Rose City Riveters celebrate Amandine Henry’s goal in the 2017 NWSL semifinal vs. the Orlando Pride. Photo by Camilla Baudhuin.

Since the inaugural National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season in 2013, the Rose City Riveters have been a pivotal piece of the team’s spirit and success. In a storm of red smoke, exquisitely painted large banners, known as tifos, and roaring chants, the Portland Thorns supporters’ group has made a name for themselves, creating an atmosphere unlike any other in women’s professional soccer.

This is evident through numbers alone; in their five years as a professional club, the Thorns have led every NWSL season in average attendance by a large margin. In 2017, they averaged 17,653 people per match, almost triple the Orlando Pride’s second place 6,186, and a far cry above the league average of 5,083.

It is possible that this success is the logical effect of the Thorns’ star-studded roster. This includes possibly the most well-known women’s soccer player, Alex Morgan, featured on the team’s inaugural roster, along with Canadian internationals Christine Sinclair and Karina LeBlanc, as well as U.S. Women’s National Team players, such as Tobin Heath and Rachel Van Hollebeke (née Rachel Buehler).

However, most credit the Riveters’ diehard support and enthusiasm as the root of the Thorns success, both in attendance and in attracting high-profile players. “[The environment] is why they are able to get players from all over the world,” says women’s soccer writer Gwendolyn Oxenham. Players—both Thorns and women on opposing NWSL teams—praise the atmosphere at Providence Park, the Thorns and Timbers’ home stadium. “It’s a really special thing, playing for these fans,” Heath said in an interview with Excelle Sports.

The root of the Riveters’ success in establishing such an outstanding supporters’ culture has baffled women’s soccer fans across the globe. While the key factor of this success is unclear, the established support of both men’s and women’s soccer, even before the creation of the Thorns, is a clear contributor.

Clive Charles’ success coaching the men’s and women’s soccer teams at the University of Portland sparked the city’s passion for the game. The Pilots have a huge following for a college team, drawing an average of 3,110 fans in 2012. That, accompanied by the already existing Timbers fan base, laid the perfect foundation for the Riveters’ establishment.
When it was announced that Portland would be getting a professional women’s soccer team, thirteen-year-old Mo Atkinson saw no reason to not support them in the way the Timbers Army supports the men. When the team’s name was revealed, she pulled the line “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. To her, the words “by any other name” conveyed Portland soccer fans’ unconditional support of their teams, regardless of the name printed across their jerseys. “They went in it, from day one, [with the intention] to make it as diehard and enthusiastic and legit as a fangroup for the men,” Oxenham explains.

Their work paid off; the first Thorns home game drew 16,479 fans, an unheard-of attendance outside major international competitions. The Riveters haven’t faltered since, making a creative tifo for every home game, along with smaller signs to honor individual players. Chants are led by capos, supporters who direct fans through songs and cheers, and are backed by a trumpet, trombone, and drum. The environment is enchanting, electric, and fun. The Riveters’ passion for the game, for the players, and for each other draws the fans in and keeps them coming back.

In addition to their enthusiasm, the Riveters’ diversity ensures that everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality, feels accepted. “[The Riveters range] from nine year old girls, to twenty year old beer-drinking men, to lesbians who get married in the stands,” Oxenham says, “and that cross-section of people [reflects] how many people women’s soccer appeals to.” The success of the Riveters and the Thorns’ marketing team in targeting and drawing in such a broad spectrum of people is something unique to the culture surrounding women’s soccer in Portland. Although teams across the world seek to emulate their success, for now the Thorns stand alone, a beacon to future growth in the women’s soccer landscape.