The Davenport Grand's ballroom was packed with a couple thousand fans eager to hear the latest update on Spokane's newest professional sports team.
They'd come to welcome Spokane Zephyr FC, the city's new top-flight women's soccer team, for its first public appearance on Sunday, Nov. 4. Zephyr, known as a wind from the west in Greek mythology, represents Spokane at the highest level of women's professional soccer in the U.S. The team is scheduled to begin play in fall 2024 at the new One Spokane Stadium in downtown Spokane.
The Spokane Zephyr FC will be a top-tier women's soccer team playing in the USL Super League, which expects to garner Division 1 credentials from the United States Soccer Federation, the sport's governing body.
The Zephyr is also expected to be a major league team in a country that's produced arguably the most prolific crop of women's soccer players the world has ever known.
The fact that it will be a top-tier team located in Spokane, of all places, matters deeply to owner and club President Katie Harnetiaux.
"I was super moved by the fact that it seems to me that in sports and in business, we tend to outsource talent from Spokane," Harnetiaux says. "All these great leaders and great athletes, if they grow up here — and I've seen it in basketball and in soccer and in women's volleyball — you've got these uber-athlete kids who end up playing on the west side of the state, or they end up leaving and going and doing something elsewhere. And I'm like, 'What if we could keep people home?'"
Harnetiaux is now in charge of an organization, USL Spokane, that looks to do exactly that: Give talented young players the chance to become professional athletes in their hometown.
The Zephyr puts Spokane on a national stage by facing off against teams from much larger sports markets like Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas, Texas; Phoenix, Arizona; and Washington, D.C., among others. The USL Super League is expected to count 13 clubs among its members.
Once a Spokane kid herself, Harnetiaux is trying to not only inspire Spokane's youth, but give them a reason to stay, if they so choose. She and her husband, Ryan, another Spokane native who's also part of the club's ownership group, see this as a way to give back to the community where they were raised.
"The fact that we both grew up here, the fact that we see Spokane turn out for Zags basketball, Spokane turns out for the Indians, they turn out for the Chiefs — and those are not professional teams — I keep thinking if we can turn out for local sports, we can turn out for a professional soccer team," Harnetiaux says.
The Harnetiauxs, who are also the driving force behind the Spokane Velocity men's professional soccer team, have a deep relationship with the city.
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"I married what he likes to call a 'natural athlete,'" Katie says of Ryan. "When I first met him, he was coaching soccer. He had a whole group of soccer kids that he was following around the state of Washington. He grew up playing soccer his whole life."
Harnetiaux jokes that she's something of a soccer mom herself from that experience, which should now transfer to her taking on the role of soccer mom by trade.
"I am the quintessential sports mom," she says. "I have been up at 6 am driving to volleyball matches, showing up at basketball games and football games and standing in the rain. I might be the uber fan."
Her deep dedication will be on display starting next year, when Spokane Zephyr FC takes the pitch at One Spokane Stadium. Even though play begins in less than a year, it's entirely unknown what this team is going to be like. Player, coach and team staff recruitment can now begin.
In the meantime, it's reassuring that Spokane's first-ever professional women's soccer team is being led by a native Spokanite, specifically one who deeply cares about our city's sporting culture. ♦