- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Few things inflame passions quite like a good soccer rivalry. Just ask Mike Gilleran, the commissioner of the West Coast Conference.
Before taking his current job in 1984, Gilleran was a young American living in London who enjoyed taking in matches from the league's top division, now known as the Premier League. But on one particular day, Gilleran nearly found himself face to fist with a decidedly unhappy group of fans of the London team West Ham United, a club which boasts a lengthy and fierce rivalry with fellow London dwellers Tottenham Hotspur.
"I was wearing Tottenham colors by accident; it was winter and I had a scarf on," Gilleran recalled of his brush with hooliganism. "But I was able to talk my way out of it, because it was clear from my accent and, you know, I was just saying, 'Meaning no disrespect here, I stumbled off the tube in the wrong place.'
"My clothing was made apparent to me right away that it was a poor choice."
Thankfully, Gilleran won't have to worry about fans wearing University of Portland colors being accosted when they travel to Santa Clara on Thursday for the renewal of the pre-eminent rivalry in women's college soccer. The only challenge confronting fans of the Pilots will be finding tickets, because far from the big money and bright lights of the so-called power conferences, No. 5 Portland and No. 8 Santa Clara are helping the WCC make its case as the best conference in the country.
"I've been with the conference for 22 years, and it's been our most successful sport, if you judge solely by winning and losing," Gilleran said of women's soccer. "And as you know, we do keep score, so that's as good a way to judge as any."
And if success begins at the top, it's tough to argue with the WCC. Between them, Portland and Santa Clara have won three of the last five national championships (Santa Clara won in 2001, Portland in 2002 and 2005). And while the conference has yet to finish the season ranked No. 1 in the RPI (finishing second or third in four of the last five years), it has sent 13 teams to the College Cup in the last decade, three more than the ACC and more than the Big East, Pac-10 and SEC combined.
Much of that stems from the success of the two programs that have claimed at least a share of the regular-season title every year since the conference added women's soccer in 1984. As a result, the annual encounter between the Broncos and Pilots has become the women's soccer equivalent of national rivalries like UCLA-Arizona in softball or Ohio State-Michigan in football. It's a game fans -- even those with no greater connection to Northern California or the Pacific Northwest than an affinity for sourdough and coffee -- circle when schools release their schedules.
"People who know and follow and appreciate women's soccer, that's now a national impact game, year after year," Gilleran said. "It means a great deal for us to have a rivalry, an intraconference rivalry, that has a much broader impact and visibility."
For the players involved, the game provides a chance to make a statement about the conference, knowing the entire women's soccer community will be paying attention.
"It's interesting being on the women's [national] team -- there are a lot of ACC players and stuff," Portland's Stephanie Lopez explained before a recent appearance with Team USA. "And being a WCC player and so proud of that conference and what we bring with smaller schools, the schools that are over there -- us, Santa Clara, Pepperdine, and we play Gonzaga, and they're a good team too. I'm proud to represent the WCC, coming to the national team, and what we bring."
But perhaps the strongest case to be made for the WCC comes from the fact that while Thursday's game remains a league showcase, it's no longer the only game that matters.
"We're consistently getting four or five teams in our league to the NCAA Tournament," Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith said. "And probably more impressive than that, teams that used to be easier games, or more likely to be a win, like a Gonzaga for example, now give all of the teams in our conference a tough game and go to the NCAA Tournament."
On Friday, both Portland and Santa Clara settled for 1-1 draws in league play, with the Pilots knotting San Francisco and the Broncos tying Loyola Marymount. In 19 previous meetings against San Francisco, Portland had never been beaten, tied or taken to overtime.
"The team that going into conference play had the lowest win total this year was the University of San Francisco, and of course, they just went up and tied Portland at Portland, which is not an easy task," Smith said. "That, in combination with our tie at LMU this weekend and our [1-0 loss Sunday] at Pepperdine, I would think really speaks to the depth of our league."
Schools in the West Coast Conference have earned a reputation for tough schedules over the years. Santa Clara has played perhaps the nation's toughest schedule, with games against Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Connecticut, Texas A&M, Boston University, Tennessee, UCLA, Cal State Fullerton and Stanford, all nonconference teams ranked in the Top 25 at the time of the game. But even nonconference opponents for teams other than Portland and Santa Clara have included UCLA, USC and Oklahoma State this season, and it seems those high-profile encounters are helping attract talent to compete with the league's own heavyweights.
"When you're playing UCLA, Carolina, Florida State or whoever, you've got to have talent out there," Gilleran said. "And our other coaches are increasingly attracting that kind of talent."
All of which, in some way, makes the biggest conference game all the more meaningful for the two participants. With so many other traps lurking, neither Portland nor Santa Clara can easily afford a loss on Thursday as they chase a conference title and seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
"And yeah, it's a big rivalry, because it's always give and take," Lopez said. "I know we've gone back and forth ever since I've been at UP. We're going to really focus on winning the conference; I know that's our team goal."
For Portland, reaching that goal will depend largely on how they respond to the misfortune of losing leading scorer and Hermann Trophy candidate Megan Rapinoe for the rest of the season following an ACL injury. Rapinoe was the successor to Christine Sinclair's throne for the Pilots, and it now appears freshman Michelle Enyeart may get an early start on her reign. Enyeart scored in a win against Saint Mary's on Sunday and has 13 goals this season to lead the team. And with Lopez and goalkeeper Cori Alexander anchoring a back line that pitched a shutout in the College Cup last season, Smith's team may not need to repeat last season's offensive fireworks.
Santa Clara, which has dealt with setbacks of its own in losing five players to season-ending injuries, enters Thursday's game with just as much to prove to a national audience after a tough weekend.
Junior Meagan Snell leads the Broncos with 10 goals, but she has struggled to find the back of the net since scoring eight goals in September to earn West Coast Conference Player of the Month.
Perhaps more importantly, Jordan Angeli has been unable to produce as a second goal scorer after netting a team-high 12 last season. Angeli and Amanda Poach were late joining the team after competing with the Under-20 national team at the World Championship in Russia, and Smith, who has plenty of experience sharing players with various national teams, believes that has played a role in Angeli's slump.
"This is my 20th season at Santa Clara, and we've had players miss spring seasons, preseasons, parts of the fall season to be with the U-21 or U-20, or U-19 back when it was U-19, or in fact, even the full team, and almost invariably come back and have a hard time adjusting," Smith said. "It could be adjusting to their role in our team being different from their role with one of the national teams. Or when you're with the U.S. team, you're always the most talented team in the tournament. When you're the most talented team, you can kind of get away with things here and there. And at Santa Clara, we're not the most talented team in the country."
Angeli's struggles culminated in a missed shot on a wide-open goal against Pepperdine, a shot Smith was so sure she would finish that he recalled thinking as it unfolded that it could be the kind of shot to spark her turnaround.
"Psychological things like that are very complex," Smith said. "They just don't believe they're going to score and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
So what's Smith's solution for busting such a slump, regardless of whether you're a defender or a goal scorer? A formula that he says works like this: Work harder, play simple and be positive with yourself and your teammates.
"When you're disgusted with yourself, it shows," Smith said, comparing Angeli to former Santa Clara star Aly Wagner, who was also her own harshest critic. "You look like you're selfish, or you're moping around or your only concern is yourself. And that's not the case, but that's sometimes the perception, so you have to be really positive. Slowly but surely, you'll work out of it."
But regardless of how the game unfolds on Thursday night, the storied rivalry promises to be a showcase for the kind of high-quality soccer that increasingly marks any game in the conference.
"I understand that if you don't play big-time college football, that some people look at you a little differently," Gilleran said. "You know, we don't have 100,000-seat football stadiums. That's true, we don't. But in all of our other sports, we like to compete at the top level, and if you set the bar high, maybe you won't reach it, but you're still pretty darn good.
"And this particular sport, we've had three national champions in the last six years. And we'll continue to set the bar high."
And in the end, there's nothing really all that complicated in understanding what makes it such a special night when Portland and Santa Clara step on the field to represent the West Coast Conference.
"I just enjoy the intensity," Gilleran said. "It's just great; it's what you want out of a college athletic event: excellent players, excellent coaching and nobody backing down. That's all you can ask for."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.