How do you love a team that loses? Game after game, season after season. In ways big and small, predictable and disappointing.
How do you love something that makes you sad, that has literally driven you to fits of tears and anger? What is the point of being a sports fan if the sport doesn’t make you happy?
That’s been my fate as a Boston Breakers fan for a couple of years now. They were okay in Women’s Professional Soccer; in the 2010 season they even finished second in the league to clinch a playoff spot. They were middling in the first year of the National Women’s Soccer League, coming in fifth and missing out on a playoff spot over a couple of bad games. Then in 2014 they hired a new coach, Tom Durkin, and the team nosedived. Hard.
For two years the team struggled. They became a joke. Ha ha, people said, typical Boston. Last place team. Always losing, can’t score, no depth on the bench. In 2014 they were eighth out of nine teams with a 6-2-16 record and -16 goal differential, two points ahead of the Houston Dash, who were a new expansion team that year and had had barely any time to pull a roster together. In 2015 they were solidly last. 4-3-13 record, -21 goal differential. It would have been worse both years without the Wonder Woman efforts of Alyssa Naeher in goal.
How do you continue loving a team like this? You could say a lot of fans have suffered for a lot longer for teams they love; perhaps in the long run, two years is really nothing to give. But this wasn’t even a team that showed glimmers of hope. It was just a bad team with a coach completely out of his depth and a front office that had given him two years to drive the roster into the ground.
The answer that immediately bubbles out of me when I think about this is that I don’t love the Boston Breakers because they win. When I go back to my initial attachment to the team, during the first season of WPS in 2009, I bought tickets because they were the closest geographical team. They were in my city, and they were a pro women’s soccer team, so of course I would go and watch. I went by myself, too shy at the time to join the raucous Riptide supporters group that waved flags down at the other end of Harvard Stadium, and didn’t realize that I was caught in the web until the next season, when I automatically pulled out my wallet to buy season tickets.
What had started as merely a way to enjoy high-level women’s soccer in a convenient way had turned into a lifetime attachment. The damn team sneaked up on me when I wasn’t looking and Breakers midfielder Kelly Smith had picked my heart out and landed the ball right at its feet.
That explained the initial hook: a lot of people come to sports through the love of a singular athlete, and Kelly Smith was that athlete for me and Boston. I’ve said many times that at her peak, she could never leave the center circle and still find a way to impact a game. I came for the game, stayed for the cleverest 10 of her age.
But WPS folded and Kelly Smith left and the Breakers soldiered on, first in WPSL Elite for a season to bridge the old league and the new, then joining NWSL. And I kept going. It wasn’t even a question that I would get season tickets from the moment NWSL announced its inception. By now it was more than just a single player; it was a part of me.
That’s another reason sports fans hold on tight to teams: personal identity. Something in the team’s style of play or their brand connects to you on a personal level. Yes, I am a big, brash attacking force. Or yes, I am patient and defensive, only lashing out when the time is right.
I guess going by the Breakers the past couple of years, I was a big fat mess. Or perhaps I was a bit battered, a bit underrated, but I put my head down and kept moving forward because there was really no other option.
Still I went to every game. We had a history, the Breakers and I. They gave me a sense of connection to the city I’d adopted as my home. If I stopped supporting the Breakers, then who was I? I have to admit, at times I kept going to games out of sense of sheer stubbornness. I wasn’t going to be driven away from the team. Durkin should be the one to leave. I’d be damned if I quit before he did.
And then he did quit. Was given the chance to resign, more like, but he left, and was replaced by a new head coach, Matt Beard, formerly of Liverpool in the English Women’s Super League. By this time I was helping to run a new Boston supporters group, the Armada, and had formed friendships and a little community of my own.
That community was the final ingredient cementing me into being a Breakers lifer. Even if a game is no good, even if the score is so demoralizing that there’s nothing for me to do but slump my way home and sit on the couch in a numb haze, at least I have spent time with people who share a passion for the game and team, people who care enough to truck themselves out three hours before kickoff and sit in a hot little parking lot discussing how badly the team is going to do that night.
NWSL fans are some of the most accepting in sports, or at least that’s what it feels like to me. There are no gatekeeping bros here demanding I prove my knowledge about the team, making me feel unsafe as a woman and as an LGBT fan. NWSL has sometimes been decried for not having much sway among the 18-50 male demographic, but that’s precisely what makes it feel special and different for some fans.
The Breakers are slowly, laboriously turning the ship, but the last two years loom in the background. Long-term fans haven’t let themselves exactly get comfortable with the progress the team has made, though there’s certainly more of an atmosphere of hope despite once again finishing dead last on the table. At the same time, I look back on the past two, now three years, and almost feel like it happened to someone else. How did I get through it?
It reminds me of how I got through the worst move of my life, stuck by myself cleaning out a house I and five other people had lived in for three years, evil soon-to-be-ex-landlady breathing down my neck, three truckfuls of possessions to transfer across the river into a third-floor walkup apartment in the summer heat, and a full day between the end of one lease and the beginning of another during which time I had to find a place to store all our junk. I did it literally minute by minute, hour by hour. I didn’t let myself think of anything beyond the next immediate move, and after it was over I looked back and wondered how I had survived.
I loved the Breakers game by game, week by week, loss by loss, until together they formed a season that was left behind in hope for a new one. I found new players to follow, new friends to connect with, new parts of my own identity. Who am I now? Not the same person I was three years ago, that’s for certain, and neither are the Boston Breakers. It feels like we’ve come through a storm together, and quite frankly, every goal and every win now feels worth so much more after the lean years.
I can’t say the team will never relapse. Perhaps they’ll continue to struggle next season. I don’t think they will. But should that come to pass, that’s fine. We’ve been through the worst already. After you’ve slogged a thousand steps through the mud with someone, what’s a few steps more?