After getting the semifinal recaps out of the way, I wanted to write a few words about the Red Stars-Thorns match from the perspective of a fan. Literally, the perspective of a fan, from the middle of the thrumming Harlem End, flags and smoke and screaming and chaos.
In the 76th minute, up a goal and with the Thorns bringing on every forward in their roster in an attempt to equalize, Katie Naughton entered the match and signaled a defensive shift for Chicago, an attempt to neutralize the increased attacking threat, a tough stretch to the finish. After doing our best to maintain composure, as the clock began to tick down, the diehards of Local 134 started that chant again, the one from the club's hype video released days before, played again at kickoff.
"Chicago, Chicago, Chicago, let's goooooo."
A simple enough chant, to the tune of Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him) Goodbye," that bookended the match, the drumline occupying the first two rows of the supporters section its backbone. It picked up again in the last five minutes, first slow, deliberate, almost dirge-like, before sweeping the whole stadium up in pace and momentum. As everything became louder, faster, more full-throated, the energy in the stadium, off and on the pitch, seemed to shift as Yuki Nagasato covered the corner and strove to maintain possession. We didn't want to hope too quickly – after all, Ifeoma Onumonu had just equalized at the death for Reign FC, forcing extra time, only a short while before. But as the song continued to carry, so did the sentiment, ever surer. We were going to win. We were going to a final. This squad can do anything.
Soccer supporters since time immemorial have gotten dreamy-eyed when waxing about the notion of the 12th Player. Some take supporter duties so seriously, stone-faced and raw, shouting from the capo's post like a coxswain or a drill sergeant, demanding more, louder, give it your all, show me you would die for this club. It's one thing to talk about the 12th Player – it's another thing to not only be part of it in action, to feel the palpable change in the air, to feel like you have a role in this, that the royal "we" is not facetious, and for it to happen organically, collectively, not at the spurring of Very Serious Supporters.
As the chanting rose to a cacophony, and a cacophony to a rumbling, the players seemed like they could feel it, too. Nagasato found a waiting Sam Kerr, who boldly tried to get one more in the back of the net, but Adrianna Franch was there to thwart her. Shortly after, a whistle, and an explosion of joy, of release, complete with blue and red streamers tossed through the Harlem End, hugs and tears and chills. The word I kept seeing on Twitter used to describe the moment was "magic." I'm getting choked up thinking about it again.
Especially because even in that moment of footballing ecstasy, there was no real magic. Everything that happened that day, the solid crowd and electric atmosphere, was the result of consistent organizing, of the grind leading up to matchday. Where ESPN and local media fell short of drawing attention to the semifinal, the club and supporters took up the charge. Members of Local 134 flyered the city ahead of the USWNT's Chicago Victory Tour stop to encourage attendance at the semifinal match. And after Time Out Chicago did a bad tweet that called attention to how much the NWSL has had to fight for local recognition, Meg Linehan of The Athletic offered to pay for tickets for fans to attend the semifinal. Soon, other stalwarts of the NWSL and Red Stars communities followed, working to cover tickets, make folks aware of transportation options, and pack the house. Even Katie Nolan, ESPN host and Twitter's #1 USWNT stan, partnered with SeatGeek to offer a ticket section. And that was all just for the semifinal; not even counting the months and years of community building and work Local 134 and sibling groups The Red Line and Black Fires had put in before.
I also know that what Chicago has built in this moment is unique to our beautiful, complicated city, but is not the only praiseworthy example of building grassroots support and community across the league. Sky Blue's Cloud 9 worked to hold their club accountable after years of failure, and the turnaround this summer on and off the pitch, complete with matches at Red Bull Arena and the commitment to seek a new ground, has been one of the best stories of the season. The Portland Thorns' notoriety for atmosphere continues – they averaged north of 20,000 attendees per home match, putting them in the top 10 of all soccer clubs in North America for attendance.
And supporters across the league have shown they can organize and respond when the worst of humanity disrupts the Beautiful Game, from Providence Park being covered with anti-racist, anti-fascist banners to supporters groups league-wide swiftly responding to racist harassment of a player with an in-writing supporters Code of Conduct.
Even now, as the Red Stars and Courage prepare to face off in an NWSL final in Cary, supporters groups of both clubs are working together to fundraise for Girls Rock! NC.
The Red Stars and the NWSL are about to enter a pivotal time, although I feel like we say this every season about the Red Stars and the NWSL. Announced expansion teams, soon-to-be announced expansion teams, new marketing partnerships and more serious soul-searching about how to compete with rapidly expanding and more-resourced European leagues (see also: #KerrWatch2019) and a soon-to-be-named USWNT coach will impact this league. Some things will work; some won't. There will inevitably be institutions that fail the women's game in America. But at the risk of sounding pollyannaish, I have faith in the supporters across this league, in what they have built and will continue to build, in how we will continue to advocate for ourselves and our clubs and our communities. We can do anything. This squad can do anything. Let's fucking go.
(Photo: Nicole Haase)