Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Tillamook Preseason Invitational hosted by the Portland Thorns. I will admit that I was going because, as a Houston Dash fan who lives in California, my opportunities to see my favorite team play in person are usually non-existent. And, I have to say, the tournament that Portland has put together was very enjoyable.
How It Usually Works
Preseason in the NWSL is usually a pretty chill affair. The teams get together for camps, post a lot of Snapchat and Instagram stories about all their training sessions, and play a few matches against college teams that often end in uneven score lines. There is excitement, there are promos galore, and there are chances to see all those new players the teams picked up … or are there?
Most of the teams travel to the colleges where they have scheduled matches. Besides making it difficult for a lot of fans to travel to see them, there is almost no marketing done around the games. There are no broadcasts, audio or visual, and at best, there are updates from the team’s intern on Twitter. Even highlights posted by the teams after the fact often look like they were taken on a cell phone.
Also, there is the issue of level of play. No offense to the NCAA game, because of course we rely on those teams to develop our league and National Team pool, but sometimes the scores of the games resemble the USWNT playing one of their smaller CONCACAF neighbors. For the league to grow, they need to start playing NWSL competition during the preseason. While it might be nice for the forwards of the NWSL teams to get a taste for goal, it doesn’t actually do that much to showcase what the teams will look like throughout the season.
Enter Portland’s Tournament
In 2016, Portland announced that it was doing something new with their preseason routine: they were going to hold a full tournament at Providence Park with four teams. Two of their opponents were NWSL teams (the Reign and the Dash), and one was a college team.
This caused a huge stir because up until then, playing NWSL competition in the preseason wasn’t considered an option. Who would come? But Portland, as Portland often does, pulled something off that would seem impossible to other teams. They held the tournament. They streamed the matches (at least the ones they played in). People came and watched.
After the tournament, the NWSL teams who participated gave rave reviews. The Thorns started the season without a loss until July. The Dash credited the tournament for a quick start, even though they later slowed up a bit. Even with the one match against the college team, the NWSL teams had a chance to play some of their real competition, and it benefited everyone involved.
Tillamook Spring Invitational, 2017
This year, Portland held their tournament again and in a way that only Portland can manage, it was even better. Instead of a college team, they got the United States U-23 team to sign up, bringing a whole other level to the competition. Now not only would fans get to see the three NWSL teams – this year the Dash and the Red Stars joined in – but they would also get to see up and coming players for the United States, getting a glimpse into the possible future of the National Team.
The level of play in the tournament was astounding. While it was clear that the three NWSL teams were trying out lineups throughout, all the matches remained competitive. When it came to finding a fourth, non-NWSL side to round out the tournament, the U-23s were a perfect pick. They provided an opponent that was the match, or more than the match of the NWSL teams. The only team to hold them scoreless were the Red Stars in Saturday’s 0-0 draw. Both the Dash and the Thorns conceded goals to the U-23s talented forwards, with the Dash coming back to win 2-1 in the last seconds of stoppage time on Sunday, and the Thorns losing 2-1 off of two scrappy late-match goals from Michelle Xiao and Sophia Smith on Wednesday. It was clear that the U-23s were not there to be out-played by professional teams, they were they to sharpen them. It was incredibly fun to watch, and it gave many the chance to see some of the bright young talent coming up through the Youth National Team system.
The games between the NWSL teams were equally competitive. The Dash and the Red Stars both had their spectacular moments and somewhat painful preseason mistakes through the week, but the games they played against the U-23s and each other felt like regular season play. The intensity was there and the focus was there. This went double for the Thorns, boosted by their home crowd. All of their matches were intense, but the last match of the tournament, against the Dash felt as intense as any playoff match (especially compared to your average preseason match). The Thorns played high-energy soccer every minute of the tournament, and it was clear that Mark Parson’s side is ready to pick up where they left off with their regular season dominance… after they fix some of the defensive miscues that led to their own mixed record. In fact, the record of every team at the tournament was 1-1-1, showing how evenly matched each of the sides were.
Then there was the crowd. Say what you will about the Thorns and their team, but no one can deny that their fans are dedicated. People showed up for these matches, even the one on Wednesday. The Thorns used the schedule to their advantage, as was their right, playing the second match of every double-header. The crowd for the non-Thorns matches was light – to the point where I listened to the video highlights from the first Dash match and picked my cheering out of the background. But for the Thorns matches, it was electric. Not sellouts like the regular season, but still more people than most NWSL teams have seating capacity for.
The announced numbers were around 6,000 for the first two matches, and 8,000 for the final one which was on a Saturday night. At each Thorns match, I could have sworn there were a few thousand more from sound alone. The Rose City Riveters, for one, made no distinction between preseason and regular season.
When it comes to making the most of your preseason, I fully believe that the Thorns have found a winning solution. Not only was the level of play far above what you get in your average match against a college side – allowing for more organic looks at players battling for roster spots – but the side-benefits are significant. Portland got the chance to promote their team on their home turf well before the season started, which from the conversations I heard around me, included a lot of people who were new to the league and the game. They also got the chance to sell extra merchandise. They got a chance to show why they consistently pull attendance numbers in the regular season that screw with the curve.
If this tournament was expanded, or similar tournaments held throughout the league, it could turn into a step towards being a more professional league. As more teams join in the next few years and the variety of competition and level of play continues to rise, they will need to find a better preseason solution that playing the local colleges.
The marketing benefits are not to be overlooked as well. I’ve written before about how the NWSL as a whole, and especially specific teams, need to step up their marketing game; this is a very useful strategy to do that. There are plenty of teams that could benefit from an extra opportunity to reach out to their local fan-base and sell the experience. If the matches are streamed to increase accessibility, this also helps. It gives media plenty to write about, it gives fans a glimpse of new rosters and a chance to get excited.
Even as a visitor to the city, the stadium, and a loud fan of one of the opposing teams, I could see how Portland is one of the premier soccer cities. It was the highlight of my year so far, and not just because I finally got to see the Dash from the stands instead of a screen. The whole experience was a treat. It’s far past time for other NWSL teams to start working up to that level.