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The NWSL Took Me Back

Players give high-fives after the National Anthem before an NWSL match between the Portland Thorns and Kansas City Current on June 23, 2024 in Portland, Oregon.
Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I want to start by making one thing clear: I do not think it's cool to be sports-illiterate. I consider it a character flaw of mine on par with my distaste for roller coasters and olives. Generally, I feel toward sports the way I feel about reality TV and pop music: If something is so popular it feels inescapable, it probably has something interesting to say about the culture. But over the first year and a half of my full-time employment at a sports blog, I struggled to find a foothold that made any sport feel compelling enough to pull me away from the whole rest of the internet long enough to pay attention. That is, until I heard about the Ali Krieger–Ashlyn Harris divorce. 

Back in November, Kelsey and I recorded a bonus episode for the Normal Gossip paid subscribers' feed (become a Friend or Friend-of-a-Friend if you want to hear this!!) with Abigail Segel about the scandal and divorce, which dissolved the marriage of two stars who'd played together as teammates on three different pro clubs as well as the U.S. women's national team. I have been shouting for years that reality TV is a sport, but this was the first time I was compelled by a sports storyline that felt like reality TV. By the time we finished recording the episode, I was so bought in that I decided to tune into the NWSL championship to see Krieger and Megan Rapinoe's final games before retiring. 

As soon as the game started, I remembered: I know this sport. I played for 10 years on recreational league teams and at school. I did clinics and camps and even had one of those goal nets in the backyard so I could practice at home. In my early teens, I found my place in the midfield and played both left and right because I'm an ambidextrous kicker. I was a bona fide soccer girl, with the high ponytails and strong legs and shin-guard tan-lines. I played until I got to high school and decided to try out cross-country instead, which overlapped with girls soccer at on my school's sports calendar. I continued my other sports—tennis, track, swimming—but never really thought about soccer again. 

Watching the NWSL championship brought back a flood of memories I had long forgotten: the way we rolled athletic tape around our thighs to make headbands, and the way 15 perfectly inflated size-five balls bounced against each other in the giant net bag carried by my coaches. The satisfying smack of the ball against my laces as I juggled it. How it felt to rush onto my opponent with just enough force to catch her off guard, but not enough to catch a foul. The proud posture of a throw-in and the way we held our breath before corner kicks. 

Despite my intellectual stance on sports and an entire life of playing them myself, I struggled to actually get into them as a spectator and fan until I could make peace with the reasons I avoided sports fandom to begin with.

I went to the University of Georgia, an SEC school where football was a religion and the actual sport was secondary to the tradition and festivities of Saturday in Athens. I was in a sorority (a blog for another time), so game days for my kind meant drinking warm rum and cokes on a fraternity's front lawn in a sundress, getting sunburnt in the stadium, and trying not to pass out from dehydration. If any undergrad managed to make it to college without being converted, many fall in love with football this way, but for some reason it didn't quite work on me. 

I've been away from Georgia for a decade so I've mostly forgotten the way my body was constantly clenched on game days, when the good ol' boys and their daddies started drinking at 7 a.m. and were even more uninhibited than normal. I've come to associate red seersucker with bracing preemptively against comments, jokes, taunts, and unwanted touching. One of my best friends was sexually assaulted on a game day; later, she showed me a photo of her blood-soaked game day sandals, which she had to throw away. The older girls in the sorority talked about game days with shining eyes but also warned us to be careful; there was always a trace of violence underneath the anticipation. So as I entered adulthood, my primary association with sports was of being unsafe and uncomfortable, in a way that precluded paying attention to what was actually happening on the field.

As with most American spectators, "sports" meant "men's sports" to me, and that meant all the violence, loudness, and aggression that is so wrapped up in masculinity and sports fandom. It didn't even occur to me that women's sports might be a more hospitable entry point. An NWSL crowd is so different from SEC football. People are still rowdy, and they are absolutely still intoxicated, but the machismo that is a fundamental part of football (and most male sports fandom) is absent. There's competition, there's rough play, but I'm not worried about violence.

I was so moved watching that NWSL championship game, though. Rapinoe and Krieger—good friends who played together on multiple women's national teams—played against each other, and that alone was compelling enough for me. But then in the first few minutes, Rapinoe tore her Achilles and was out of the game. It was a gutting and emotional end to her career that even I, someone who had never watched her play, felt moved by. Toward the end of the game, Gotham's goalkeeper Mandy Haught got a red card and the team was out of subs, so Nealy Martin, a defender, subbed in for the last few minutes. The image of her struggling into the goalkeeper's jersey has stayed in my mind all these months later as a turning point for me. Her teammates looked shocked, she looked stolid, and I was all in. 

We're well into a new season now, and I'm mostly following Gotham because over the winter I casually became a fan of Lynn Williams and Rose Lavelle. I watched Under Pressure, the Netflix docuseries about the 2023 Women's World Cup, and it gave me background on a few more players and their stories. It didn't occur to me that getting into soccer would be so easy, but since I already know the sport, it has just been a matter of getting to know these players, and that's basically reality TV. I subscribed to The Late Sub with Claire Watkins and then The Women's Game with Sam Mewis. I can't believe they left Alex Morgan off the Olympic team! I watch the games and I even say "Oh!!!" when a particularly good goal is scored, like this one from Maycee Bell. I can identify a good goal! 

I even had what I've gathered is the quintessential women's sports fan experience. Last Sunday, we had friends in town and I had a great idea: What if we went to the brewery in our neighborhood to watch the Gotham game? I knew the brewery played soccer games, so surely it would be on. 

We walked up and I could see soccer was on the three mounted TVs around the brewery. But when I got closer, I realized it wasn't NWSL; it was England against Slovakia in the men's Euros. I grabbed a non-alcoholic beer and settled in for the next hour. It wasn't my girls, but I was game to keep up. 

It feels good to follow a team. It feels good to know lore that informs how I watch a game, and I know that because this is an activity that rewards investment, it'll become more fun the longer I watch. The biggest thing I get out of this, though, is the thrill of seeing women pursuing excellence in a space that I had previously written off as completely male and therefore out of bounds. On NWSL podcasts, conversations about players and strategy are often immediately followed by systemic criticisms of networks and the league for not valuing women's sports as much as men's sports. 

Sports is as big a part of pop culture as reality TV and pop music; there should be room for all kinds of people in its fandoms, no matter what experiences we've had with it in the past. I found that room for myself in the NWSL. Maybe I'll see you there.

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