Today is a rare and unique opportunity for Sounders FC fans when the Sounders FC reserves meet Orlando City SC at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.
The Sounders are now in their third season in the MLS Reserve League, but this year is different. For one, they will meet Orlando City, one of 13 teams in the USL Pro Division. In previous years, the Reserve League pitted one MLS club’s backup players against another club’s backups. This year, the inclusion of the USL clubs not only adds more matches, but also more competition within those matches as players from both sides vie for the attention of head coaches.
Second is the location of the match. Cheney Stadium has been the home for class AAA baseball – the top division of the minor league system – since 1960. That will mean a bit of a field makeover to the Tacoma Rainiers home ballpark as the Sounders take the field on Sunday against Orlando City.
Those two elements will combine to make Sunday’s game quite an event.
The match comes at a time when the Sounders are seeking to affiliate with a USL club and they are vetting Tacoma as an option.
“I think there are more advantages to a local affiliate as opposed to an affiliate in another state,” Sounders FC owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “It’s not like we are having a giant bidding war and open competition, but we are willing to explore alternatives to Tacoma and if there was a very good alternative … we would definitely be interested.”
Over the past few years, Major League Soccer has made several strides in improving the structure of the Reserve League.
After going dark in 2008, the league returned in 2011 and this year will include a partnership with the US PRO that is designed to enhance player development and competition in both leagues and provide a foundation for further efforts in the future. A few MLS teams will have affiliations with teams in USL PRO, while others will face second division teams in interleague play.
The Sounders are hoping to have a partnership organized before the 2014 season and while the logistics have not yet been ironed out in terms of ownership, equity and technical control, it is a concept that Major League Soccer is quickly exploring in many markets.
“The long-term objective is some version of a Major League (Baseball) triple-A model, where just like the Mariners, they could call someone up, send someone down or get a rehab start,” Hanauer said.
While Hanauer had many positive things to say about Tacoma and the Tacoma Rainiers, Cheney Stadium is not a likely long-term stadium solution for a USL club in Tacoma because of conflicting schedules, field sizes and the work that would be required to convert the stadium from a baseball configuration to a soccer configuration and back so frequently during the summer.
However, he was excited about the match on Sunday and the match is coming as the fruits of the efforts of other local soccer clubs.
The Sounders U23 affiliate had the idea last year to play at Cheney Stadium and brought the Sounders into the equation.
Now with the clock winding down before kickoff, the grounds crew at Cheney Stadium has been working feverishly to get the field ready for the match.
The process started at the conclusion of Tacoma’s 7-4 win over the Reno Aces on Monday. The grounds crew removed the mound and portions of the infield clay as well as small portions of the warning track. Thursday marked the beginning of installation of the sod for the field.
Ryan Schutt, Tacoma Rainiers senior director of ballpark operations, has worked with his counterparts at Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field, who have had similar short-term changeovers and will lean on them further if need arises as Sunday approaches. Schutt and his crew have had some experience with quick work in getting a field ready, too. Before the 2011 season, Cheney Stadium underwent a renovation and the grounds crew worked up until the final days before the home opener to ensure that the field would be ready for the lengthy AAA baseball schedule.
“It’s a challenge and that’s a big motivating factor. Going from a baseball field that will four or five days later be a soccer field and then back to a baseball field – we’re trying to do that as well as we can and make sure the Sounders are impressed,” Schutt said. “The Sounders have had some pretty cool success with their fans and the community. It’s pretty exciting how well they’ve done and it will be cool to be a little part of that.”
After Sunday’s game, they will reverse that process for the return of the Rainiers on May 16.
Sunday’s match kicks off at 4 pm PT. Tickets are available by calling 800-745-3000.