Supporter culture in men’s professional soccer has existed for decades all over the world. In the women’s game, that culture is still taking hold as professional women’s leagues continue to grow around the globe. The NWSL is in its eighth year – longer than any of its predecessors in America – and supporter culture throughout the league is on the rise.
For Belton native Sarah Gilleland, it was this passion and energy of the supporters sections that led her to seek out those groups at any soccer match she attended, even when she moved across the country. When she returned back home to Texas, she helped create the Houston Dash supporter group, Bayou City Republic.
“My first taste in soccer came from my friends in high school who were on select teams, and I just thought soccer was so cool because of them,” Gilleland explained. “That, and I always found that soccer brought people together and it was fascinating. Plus, they had cooler uniforms, wore less padding, and I thought about how they had to run the entire time and you must be athletic to be able to do that. Because of that, in all the cities that I moved to, I would always find a soccer game to go to and try to connect with people.”
After graduating from Texas A&M, Gilleland moved to Portland, Oregon, and the desire to seek out soccer moved with her, so she adopted the Portland Thorns as her NWSL team and bought season tickets for the University of Portland Pilots. However, the urge to come home eventually became too strong.
“It didn’t matter if it was college, professional, or our friend’s rec team, we were there, either just to hang out or to actually watch the game,” Gilleland recalled. “Portland kind of helped build the momentum and showed me how thousands of people could come together for a game, but eventually, I reached the point in my life, in 2014, where I decided it was time to go home. By that point, the Dash were in the middle of their first season, so I ditched the Thorns and started studying everything, like where the players came from, what was their history, what were they bringing to the table with the Dash, and completely fell in love with that 2014 team.”
By the time the 2015 season rolled around, Gilleland was a full-fledged member the Dash fam, but wanted to help institute a couple changes in the supporter section. After coming up with a name and pitching an idea to some other like-minded individuals, Gilleland and her crew set out to create the newest supporter group, Bayou City Republic.
“There was already a couple of supporter groups, but they were starting to fizzle out, and there was a group of us who really wanted to build up a supporter group section, so I brought them over in 2015 in hopes of making one big group instead of a bunch of smaller ones,” Gilleland said. “I still wanted us to all have our own opinions and have a say, but I wanted us all to be in one group instead.”
Now considered by many to be the leader of the group, Gilleland has seen Bayou City Republic grow from individuals who originally bought five-gallon buckets and PVC pipes to create the drumming section into a strong presence at Dash matches. The group even created one of the most recognizable slogans in all of the NWSL with their “Y’all Means All” banner from last year.
“There was something going on last year where they wanted all the supporter groups to protest, but we decided to do it by creating a big sign that said ‘Y’all Means All,’ and that is our statement,” Gilleland explained. “It is originally an LGBT thing, but we took it further to show that it means everybody, because when you say ‘y’all,’ it means all. To me, it represents the whole city of Houston and the people coming in whether they are transplants, moving from Iowa or Ecuador, I don’t care, y’all means all.”
While the “Y’all Means All” banner and the resulting positive feedback mean a lot to the group leader, there is one particular memory that stands above the rest for Gilleland, and she was actually able to celebrate its anniversary just a couple of weeks ago.
“We have ‘officially unofficially’ claimed May 23rd as Houston Dash day, because there are so many great things that have happened on that day throughout Dash history,” Gilleland joked. “May 23, 2018, the Dash are in a rut and they just don’t seem to be winning at home, so my friend and I decided to sage BBVA Stadium. We brought up every player, every coach, the fans, people driving to the game, and even brought up the opposing team, which was Seattle, and we had never beaten them. We started talking about how we just wanted to beat them once, and that game we beat them. We lost our minds just cheering, drumming, and going crazy. I have tons of memories, but that was a time of desperation and a great memory.”
Now, like so many around the country, Gilleland is awaiting the return of the NWSL so she can get back to BBVA Stadium with her family, create more memories, and share in their passion for not only the Houston Dash, but also the sport that so many hold dear.
“We might not be big and showy, or the ones that are going to be put on TV to advertise women’s soccer, but I really love the Houston Dash fanbase,” Gilleland said. “There are so many great people that I have met. It is just a giant family, and I think that is why people are struggling with no sports right now, because there is a family aspect that is not happening. We all have our different teams outside of the Dash too, but we still come together to share our passion for the game. That is something my mom told me when I was in high school, that people love watching passionate people. I think that is the thing, if you are passionate and not embarrassed about it, that is what draws people to you, so it all boils down to a passion for the game.”