On Soccer/by Paul Danzer/Portland Tribune/world Cup Fever, New Partnerships Opportunities For Nwsl

PMG FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tobin Heath has been a star for both the Portland Thorns and the United States, which capped its 2019 Women's World Cup run with a 2-0 finals victory over the Netherlands on Sunday.One of the consistent refrains from members of the United States team throughout the Women's World Cup was what good buds they are.

On the day they lifted the championship trophy came more good Bud news. The National Women's Soccer League announced a deal with Budweiser, which among other considerations will have naming rights for the NWSL semifinals and finals and the league's MVP trophy.

Even in a town that turns up its nose at industrialized brew, this announcement should be cheered.

The announcement was typically mum about how much money Anheuser-Busch is paying. But the "multi-year" commitment from the beer giant is the latest indication that the NWSL can have staying power.

Maybe this feels a bit like the Clydesdales hitching themselves to a bandwagon. Without specifics, it's hard to know how sweet of a deal this will be for the league, its players and fans.

But it's hard to view Anheuser-Busch partnering with the NWSL as anything but good for the league.

Also last week, ESPN announced plans to televise 14 NWSL games, beginning with Sunday's noon match at Providence Park between the Portland Thorns and Orlando Pride (ESPNews).

After last season, there was some angst around the NWSL when its partnership with the Lifetime network ended. But the recent developments are a significant step forward.

Lifetime did a fine job. But it's a niche network. The ESPN family is different — and expert at promoting events on its platforms.

Bud isn't bad about promotions, either.

Hopefully such partnerships help the NWSL pay the players not on national team contracts a wage that makes soccer a viable career for more young women. 

Besides financial support for players, or in tandem with that issue, another discussion this summer will be around how much of an attendance/viewership bump the league gets from the World Cup. 

In Portland, expect the Thorns' summer crowds to consistently push 20,000.

Through three home games and without many of their World Cup participants, the Thorns are averaging more than 18,000 fans. Promotional tickets account for some of that, but numbers approaching a full Moda Center are still impressive.

Take Portland's three home games out of the mix, and average attendance at NWSL games this season is 4,678. If that number seems disappointing, consider that 55 of the league's top players were on World Cup rosters. The return of those stars — particularly the U.S. players whose salaries are paid by the U.S. Soccer Federation — will provide the NWSL and its owners outside of Portland with an important opportunity.

Tacoma, North Carolina and Utah have put at least a few thousand fans in the stands consistently.

But the Chicago Red Stars (who for now feature one of the sports superstars in Australian Sam Kerr), New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC, and even MLS-affiliated NWSL clubs Houston and Orlando need to take every opportunity to promote their product.

Those clubs are not going to match Portland's impressive attendance numbers. That's OK. Fan bases don't spring up overnight. The first seeds of the adoration for this U.S. team were planted two decades ago.

In its seventh season, the NWSL is the longest-lasting women's pro soccer league this country has seen. But it's still young.

Which is why interest from mega-brands such as Bud and ESPN is significant.

Here's hoping such partnerships can help the NWSL grow into a sustainable business that's around when the kids who idolize today's world champions have the opportunity to bring their own kids to women's pro soccer games.

n On the field, the next three months should be entertaining for Thorns fans.

Portland plays nine of its remaining 13 regular-season games at home.

And the Thorns figure to have their American heroes, including goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, around for eight of those (my guess is the U.S. players will be busy this week with celebrations and recuperation).

In a league where three points separate the top five teams and seven points separate the top seven, home games could prove crucial — even though the Thorns have been blanked in consecutive outings at Providence Park.

The Thorns did a marvelous job of managing their difficult early schedule and were the surprising league leaders entering last weekend. But Providence Park is a different world, and for all of their success it hasn't always been advantageous for the home team.

Before Friday's disappointing 1-0 loss to Tacoma-based Reign FC, Thorns coach Mark Parsons warned that the next few weeks would be more challenging than the first 10 weeks.

The process of reintegrating even world-class players is part of that challenge. 

"Soccer isn't a game about talent or tactics," Parsons said. "It's about cohesion and chemistry and relationships and connections and understanding. It doesn't matter how good players are. To be able to build that and grow and be an efficient and effective team takes time. At the same time, while that's happening we still want to be able to put in a performance that gets us points."

Thorns players downplayed the lineup changes as a factor in failing to score against the rival previously known as Seattle Reign. And the visitors, one of the better defensive outfits in the NWSL, did a superb job containing Portland's creative players.

As Parsons noted, the Thorns thrived on the road with quick-strike attacks, using their speed and decisive passes to produce goals.

But the two most recent teams to visit Portland — Utah and Reign FC — took away those opportunities. Road teams don't expect to dictate play with the ball.

"We like to be able to hurt teams when we move the ball in quick, direct, positive, purposeful attacks," Parsons said after losing to the Reign. "We got asked a different question tonight, and we've got some work to do to make sure we solve that."

Odds are the Thorns will be just fine. The return of Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Emily Sonnett — whenever that is — should help the Thorns again become dominant on set pieces and make it much more difficult for opponents to deal with the quality balls that Meghan Klingenberg, Ellie Carpenter and Heath deliver.

n The Timbers reached the midpoint of their MLS schedule with Sunday's win at Yankee Stadium, a gritty 1-0 triumph that ended a 12-match unbeaten run for New York City FC.

The way the Timbers won — with some significant players resting and with a full-on commitment to defending — should only build confidence.

That's certainly true for defenders Marco Farfan and Claude Dielna. Farfan, the 20-year-old who grew up in Gresham, played the most complete game of his MLS career. Dielna in recent weeks has been a reliable option at center back.

The standings show Portland ninth in the Western Conference. But with 14 of their 17 remaining league games at Providence Park, the Timbers should be big climbers the rest of the way.

The Timbers have a shot to make a run at second place, which is only 11 points off.

First place? Not likely, given how Los Angeles FC, which is 20 points in front of Portland and in command of the Supporters' Shield race, is dominating the league.

Portland does get one shot to derail LAFC's rampage, and it comes at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Given the stakes and the animosity that has built quickly between the clubs, this could be a juicy contest at Bank of California Stadium.

The Timbers feel LAFC could use some comeuppance after the second-year team spoiled the grand reopening of Providence Park on June 1 — a game that ended with an animated discussion between coaches Giovanni Savarese of Portland and Bob Bradley of LAFC.

To watch this week's battle will require forking over a few dollars for the ESPN+ streaming service. If you're a soccer fan, it's a solid investment.

The timing of Open Cup games is always challenging. But I expect Savarese and Bradley won't hold back. The winner will be two victories from a trophy — the Aug. 7 semifinal matchups will be announced on Thursday.

For Portland, the quarterfinal falls in the middle of a three-game week and is the second of five games over 15 days. But the next two will be at home, including an 8 p.m. Saturday visit from Colorado. And Savarese gave himself options by resting key players (including Diego Chara) on Sunday in the Bronx. 

It is a more challenging turnaround for LAFC, which plays on Friday at Houston. Still, coming off a 6-1 thrashing of Vancouver over the weekend that put LAFC nine points clear of the second-place L.A. Galaxy, Bradley has the luxury to choose to prioritize the Open Cup.

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