Professional women’s soccer takes foot in Tacoma
As Reign FC players make the walk from Cheney Stadium up to the Foss High School practice field on Monday afternoon, students can be seen milling around the campus in anticipation of returning to class.
A bell rings and one of the women soccer players jokes that the sound causes a flashback to her days in high school. In some way, the players have gone back to school; as they stretch before practice a gym class jogs around the track at the multi-purpose facillity, which is fully living up to its name.
This is the new normal for the Reign FC, newly-branded after moving south from Seattle to Tacoma.
The Reign will play in a different stadium, one that houses a baseball team and another soccer team, in this season of change. The 2019 season is also a World Cup year, meaning as many as six players will leave the team for international commitments when the month-long tournament begins on June 7.
There’s change in the National Women’s Soccer League, too. In February, the league and A&E announced they would end their three-year broadcast deal a year early. Games will now be seen on Yahoo Sports, beginning Sunday when the Reign open at Houston at 3 p.m.
Ever since the announcement on Jan. 30 that the Seattle Reign would move its home games from Memorial Stadium in Seattle to Cheney Stadium — and ditch the Seattle part of their name — the seventh year of the franchise was going to be different. The team also has a new minority owner in Rainiers president and CEO Mikal Thomsen.
“I’ve been in Seattle for five years and that was home,” Reign centerback Lauren Barnes said. “I think initially it was a bit of a shock, it’s just something you have to deal with as professionals. I think it’s been a great move for the club and I think it will be for the long run.
“To be honest, Tacoma has been so welcoming, it’s been fun. We came out to a Defiance game and they’ve been so welcoming to the girls and that atmosphere gets us all excited. Cheney Stadium is pretty sweet and the atmosphere is gonna be awesome.”
Cheney Stadium is now an epicenter of sports in the region. For the period spanning from March 8 when the Tacoma Defiance kicked off its USL season to October 19, the last game of their season, there will be 99 games played there — 17 by the Defiance, 12 by the Reign and 70 for the Tacoma Rainiers — not including playoffs.
The Reign had been looking for a new home since 2017 but an upgrade in NWSL stadium standards — and sliding attendance numbers —forced the hand of team owner Bill Predmore. The Reign’s average attendance had slipped to 3,800 in 2018 and the team had never drawn more than the 4,600 fans in 2016 at Memorial Stadium, which has been in use since 1947.
Predmore hopes loyal fans make the trek to Tacoma. And while he would not give exact figures in regards to ticket sales, Predmore said fans are interested. Reign FC’s first game in Cheney Stadium will be Sunday, April 21 at 7 p.m. against the Orlando Pride.
“Season-ticket sales are exceeding expectations and we are anticipating besting our all-time record,” Predmore said in an email on Friday. “Both in terms of the absolute number of season tickets sold and revenue generated from those sales.”
Predmore, during the team’s introductory press conference, said there were challenges in providing the proper matchday experience at Memorial Stadium to which the Reign’s Megan Rapinoe chimed in with, “no beer.”
Cheney Stadium offers such upgrades as restrooms and concessions, the players can’t help but be excited about playing on grass instead of the artificial turf in Seattle.
“The turf wasn’t ideal and that was always rough,” defender Megan Oyster said. “You would wake up the next day after a game and you would feel it. I was just really hard to play on.”
The product on the field will look largely the same as 2018 when the Reign went 11-5-8. However, the Reign the potential to lose six players for up to nine games of the season because of World Cup training and competition. Those players lost, obviously, are some of the team’s best — Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long (U.S), Jodie Taylor (England), Lydia Williams (Australia), Celia Jimenez Delgado (Spain), and Theresa Nielsen (Denmark) — although other teams are faced with similar issues.
Depth and team chemistry are key issues, Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski said. Andonovski is used to having international players leave during a World Cup cycle and is preparing for it.
“Sometimes it gets a little disruptive because you can get a good read on them, but we’re used to it,” Andonovski said. “The players have been in this situation where they train with some of the international team players and then they come back again so it’s our responsibility as a coaching staff to make sure they’re the best that they can be while they’re here.
“Who ever is here, we’re happy to work with.”