A Major League Soccer Reserve League match in Tacoma on Sunday will help determine if the city and Cheney Stadium could become permanent home to a United States Soccer Leagues Pro team.
But even if Cheney fails that test, owners of the Tacoma Rainiers baseball team are open to the possibility of a new stadium to house a team affiliated with Seattle Sounders FC.
“I think we’re interested at a high level, regardless, whether that was at Cheney or whether that was figuring out some kind of model to do a soccer-specific stadium somewhere in the area,” Rainiers president Aaron Artman said Thursday. “We think the world of the way (the Sounders) operate from a business and fan perspective, and to partner with them I think would always be something we would have an open mind about.”
USL Pro represents the third division of the United States soccer system. Before this season, the league reached an agreement that would allow Major League Soccer clubs to affiliate with USL Pro teams instead of playing in the MLS Reserve League.
For this season, Sounders FC continues to field a reserve team, while Sporting Kansas City affiliated with Orlando City SC of USL Pro. Those two teams will meet at 4 p.m. Sunday at Cheney Stadium.
By next season, the Sounders hope to affiliate with a USL Pro team. And they are interested in having that team in Tacoma, despite reservations about Cheney Stadium.
“There are a lot of positives, especially working with the Rainiers group,” Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said recently. “That said, I think after this exercise, my hunch is that we will come to the conclusion that Cheney Stadium – although a fantastic facility – probably is a bad long-term stadium solution for a USL franchise in Tacoma.”
Cheney has been home to Tacoma Triple-A baseball since 1960. It underwent a major renovation before the 2011 season, however it remains configured for baseball. For soccer, the pitch will be run along the third-base line with one goal near first base and the other in left field. The pitcher’s mound will be removed and temporary grass will cover the dirt portions of the infield.
Even if everything falls into place Sunday, the degree of difficulty would multiply over a dozen or more USL home games, especially while working around 70 Rainiers home dates.
“The concern about playability of the field, what the fans’ experience is truly like – given that it’s not a stadium built specifically for soccer – are two key elements,” Artman said. “… It’s a beautiful facility and better than a lot of places the reserves will be playing now. But that doesn’t mean it’s the long-term solution. We’ll know a lot more after (Sunday).”
If the lesson teaches that Cheney won’t work, both sides will face decisions.
The Sounders like the idea of an affiliate where players are close enough to join the big team on short notice – even Spokane is farther than Hanauer’s ideal. However, he was open to sites within the triangle from Olympia to Bellingham to Kitsap County.
“Not to sound like every other pandering professional sports organization in the world,” Hanauer said, “but having a really good stadium solution – whether in Tacoma or somewhere else – probably ultimately will drive where we end up.”
Space and parking considerations probably rule out creating a soccer-specific stadium at the Cheney Stadium site, Artman said. However, he expressed willingness to investigate other possibilities.
“It’s probably too early for all that,” he said. “But we’ll see how Sunday goes and maybe that’s something we look at down the road as something to potentially partner on and see if it would work for Tacoma and be good for Tacoma and be good for the Sounders.”