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Pride in Portland: Thorns confident in life after Morgan

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Thorns FC

Only one NWSL team could afford to move on from the game's biggest draw. As Richard Farley found out, soccer in Portland is bigger than Alex Morgan.

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Twenty-four hours before a new National Women's Soccer League season kicked off in Portland, a full house was on hand to witness Thorns FC's sibling, the defending Major League Soccer champion Portland Timbers, continue its uneven start. Despite supporter uncertainties following a 3-1 loss to FC Dallas three days earlier, 21,144 people showed up to see the Timbers defeat San Jose, 3-1, allowing the team extended its home sellout streak to 89 games. Every ticket ever offered for a Major League Soccer game in Portland has sold, with no indication the streak will end any time soon.

From outside Portland, it can be difficult to distinguish the Timbers' success from the area's broader love of soccer, but a quick look at the University of Portland's attendance clears up any confusion. For 10 years, from 2005 through 2014, "UP" led the nation in average attendance at its women's soccer games. Even last year, when results disappointed for a second straight campaign, the Pilots' crowd still ranked fourth in the nation (Merlo Field holds 4,892 fans).

That's the environment in which Portland's NWSL team has excelled, though at the onset of the Thorns FC's existence, it was unclear whether a women's professional team could tap into that groundswell. Perhaps the grassroots support the Pilots enjoy wouldn't translate to professional players, many without connections to Portland? Expectations were kept reasonable.

Now, three years later, the Thorns are coming off a season in which their 10 home games averaged 15,639-person crowds in a league in which no other team averaged more than 6,500 per game, and four teams drew an average under 4,000. The Thorns have established themselves as the best-supported team in women's soccer, while Portland has proven its soccer fandom transcends love of one club.

If there's any doubt about that transcendence, it should be tested this year. On Sunday, for the first time in club history, the Thorns will take the field without the most popular player in women's soccer. United States international forward Alex Morgan, allocated to Portland in the first stages of the NWSL, was traded to Orlando this offseason – a mutual parting of ways that gave each side a reset. Injured and short on goals for much of her time in Portland, Morgan requested a trade to the expansion Pride. Receiving a package that resulted in three U.S. national team talents, the Thorns proved happy to oblige.

The deal, however, implicitly tests a theory: In addition to the advantages of the Portland market and franchise (it's run by the Timbers), the Thorns' amazing success at the turnstiles would not have happened without Morgan's unparalleled star power. Now that she’s gone, the Morgan Effect may be detectable.

Portland president of business Mike Golub acknowledges the obvious, that "to launch with Alex Morgan on your team your first year is a wonderful thing," regardless of the other assets your organization brings to the table. But, according to Golub, the scope of the assets which Timbers FC brought to this particular table were huge.

"We weren’t a true, pure start-up," Golub told FourFourTwo. "When we began to launch the Thorns, we had two years of (Timbers FC) operating in MLS. We had a really excellent organization in place, a really good understanding of the market, and really great relationships with the fan base and the partner base, the sponsors. And the media for that matter. So we had a lot of advantages going in …"

Steve Dykes-USA Today Sports

Morgan had 15 G, 11 A in 36 games in Portland. (Steve Dykes-USA Today Sports)

Among those advantages: The fan base proved hungry for a women's league. Within a month of the NWSL's November 2012 birth – and one month before Alex Morgan was allocated to Portland – the Thorns had sold over 2,000 season ticket packages, and it was unlikely customers were gambling on the star's arrival. In the league’s initial months, it was assumed Morgan would be allocated to Seattle, where she had played with the Sounders Women in the now defunct USL W-League and her then-boyfriend, Servando Carrasco, was a midfielder for the MLS Sounders. Some assumed Abby Wambach, who had recently moved to Portland, would be allocated to the Thorns, along with University of Portland products Christine Sinclair and Megan Rapinoe. (Rapinoe ended up in Seattle; Wambach with Western New York.)

None of those rumors mattered to the team's initial fans, many of whom helped found a supporters' group, the to-be-named Rose City Riveters, before the first player was allocated or signed. And surprisingly, Golub discovered, early buyers weren't necessarily coming from the Timbers' 15,000-plus season ticket holder base.

"We didn’t know what crossover there would be from Timbers fans and Thorns fans," Golub explained. "We thought there’d be some, which has proved to be the case, but it’s less than people think. Only about 25 percent of Thorns season ticket holders are Timbers season tickets holders."

The numbers screamed independence. That didn't mean breaking the Thorns off from the Timbers and compromising the advantages the team had – infrastructure, acquired knowledge, connections with supporters. It meant not defining the Thorns in terms of the Timbers. Across the women's soccer landscape, teams are often branded as mere offshoots of the bigger, better known men's club. For Golub, it was apparent early that a similar strategy would be a mistake in Portland.

We wanted and want the Thorns to have their very own distinct identity ... At the same time, we wanted to be very clear to the market, to our fans, and to our partners that the Thorns were part of the Timbers family.

- Mike Golub

"We wanted and want the Thorns to have their very own distinct identity, which is part of the reason why we never considered Lady Timbers, or Timbers Women, or what you sometimes see in Europe – Lady Arsenal." Contractual commitments between Major League Soccer and Adidas would have also precluded using the Timbers name, since NWSL is a Nike-sponsored league. "We never considered that, because we wanted the Thorns to have their own distinct identity as a club. At the same time, we wanted to be very clear to the market, to our fans, and to our partners that the Thorns were part of the Timbers family."

It sounds like a small, potentially insignificant thing: brand independence. But it plays into how people compartmentalize their fandom.

Soccer is deeply rooted in Portland’s culture, but not all that support falls under the Timbers' umbrella. People separate their Timbers fandom from their Pilots fandom because they're different teams, just as people were apparently separating their Thorns' allegiance from their Timbers'. When the men's side of the PTFC business won MLS Cup last December, it didn't increase satisfaction with the women's product. Instead, having missed the NWSL playoffs for the first time, the Thorns underwent an offseason overhaul.

"There is inarguably a wonderful soccer tradition and legacy here ...," Golub explains, "But I also think the more macro issue is there’s just a very palpable and strong sense of civic pride ... That’s why all the state sports teams and college programs (in Oregon) are so well-supported. People love the connection between sports and their city and what it represents to them; what it represents to the rest of the country and, in many cases, the rest of the world."

Had those words come from another executive, they could apply to any sport, if not any city. Golub, however, has seen a city lose its connection its sports team, eventually losing that team entirely. Before coming to Portland and Major League Soccer, Golub ran the business side of the former Vancouver Grizzlies, eventually taking part in the National Basketball Association franchise's move to Memphis.

"[Portland's] civic pride," he continued, "I think the sports teams represent that in the right way. Fans just embrace that in the right way. I think that’s exactly (the case) with the Thorns."

Dealing Morgan was a wise move and shows that the Thorns have both ambition to improve and confidence that the fans will remain.

- Thorns fan Kevin Bensel

That civic pride may explain why few supporters are dwelling on Morgan's absence. This offseason, after a year outside the playoffs, supporters looked at the team's broader needs.

"I think dealing Morgan was a wise move and shows that the Thorns have both ambition to improve and confidence that the fans will remain despite the departure of the most marketable female soccer player in the NWSL," season-ticket holder Kevin Bensel told FourFourTwo. A father of twins he’ll take to Sunday’s opening game, Bensel concedes some fans will be "unhappy about the trade," but from his point of view, sending Morgan to Orlando "removes half of a striker partnership (with Sinclair) that never seemed to work."

Gab Rosas, a season ticket-holder instrumental in the formation of the Riveters, told FourFourTwo Morgan's departure "makes me feel a little more comfortable with the position of the Thorns." Calling the trade "an excellent business decision for everyone involved," Rosas concedes "some people became Portland fans because [Morgan] was a Thorn." For Rosas, though, Morgan "was a Thorn, now she isn't, and I still root for the Thorns."

Checked against the Morgan Effect's null hypothesis – the idea that the player is a transcendent marketing force – Bensel and Rosas provide an alternate view; at least, one that might hold true in the Portland market. In Orlando, Morgan could make a franchise viable and be a player worth giving up three U.S. national teamers to get. For the Thorns, though, Morgan's draw didn't outweigh the needs of the club.

"What’s a wonderful luxury that we have, from both the men’s and women’s side, is because we have such a wonderful fanbase – that incredible, deep support – we can and have made decisions that are best for the product on the field," Golub explained when asked if there was a moment when business concerns may have kept Morgan in Portland. "We’re not making soccer decisions for business reasons, because we have such a strong foundation ... we were and are confident that we’re so strong, the brand is so strong, the support for the club is so strong, that it transcends one or two players."

It's not a position the Thorns take for granted, particularly given the fragility of the NWSL. Though the league has reached a historic fourth season, it's still one where a single team drew more than 6,500 people per game in 2015. Orlando looks likely to challenge Portland's attendance numbers this season, but for a league that lacks a significant television contract, the lack of eyes on NWSL games is worrisome.

Golub knows the Thorns must do their part.

"All of us that are involved with NWSL teams are partners,” he said, “and we’re all committed to ensuring this league is sustainable and viable for the long-term ... Even though we have great crowds and great attendance and a very strong fan base, we’re very much in the growth phase, and that means exposing more people to the product, doing more outreach in the community, telling our story everywhere we can – digitally, on air, in the media; continuing to grow the following for the Thorns and contribute towards this league being a viable long-term proposition."

When, 13 days before the team's season-opener, FourFourTwo reached out to the Thorns, the team confirmed season ticket sales were up from 2015. And it had been five-and-a-half months since Morgan had last been a Thorn. Whereas her presence would make-or-break some franchises, the Thorns' juggernaut is set to roll on.

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Richard Farley is West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardFarley.