Cheney Stadium’s new co-tenants, the Seattle Sounders FC 2, got a first glimpse of their home away from home Wednesday afternoon. Player feedback was swift.
“I could tell they were excited,” S2 coach John Hutchinson said, “because they were giggling and laughing and taking Instragram photos.”
Their coach was pretty pumped, as well.
“I’ve never been to Tacoma,” said Hutchinson, an Australian native who last year moved to the Seattle area. “I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I walked in here, and then I saw an amazing baseball stadium that they’ve turned into a place for soccer with fantastic grass.”
The first United Soccer League match on that grass will be played Friday night at 7, when S2 faces Portland Timbers 2. The forecast is calling for a crowd of raucous fans enjoying optimum sight lines in a ballpark reconfigured for strikes of a different kind.
Gone will be the mound and the basepaths, covered by temporary sodding seamlessly installed to blend in with the rest of the field.
“Magnificent,” veteran midfielder David Estrada said of the conversion. “Kudos to the people who made it happen.”
Cheney Stadium groundskeeper Michael Huie oversees the many people who will make soccer happen 17 times before the regular season concludes on Oct. 10. Huie admits he knows next to nothing about soccer, as he’s a baseball guy.
More to the point, he’s a lawn guy who studied turf management at Walla Walla Community College. Until it was determined that S2 would exchange home games at the Starfire Sports complex for a long-time future in Tacoma, Huie had no idea his responsibilities would be vastly expanded.
But he’s embracing the challenge, with the emphasis on the challenge.
“We had a custom platform made weighing 22 tons, and we build the mound on that,” said Huie. “We can pop it up with a trailer and take it off the field.”
Cheney Stadium’s dual-purpose function required 13,000 square feet of sod to be transported from a Moses Lake turf farm for the Friday opener. Each batch is one-and-done, replaced by a fresh shipment.
“We’re looking at different ways on how to get rid of it,” said Huie. “We may have a day where we haul it into our overflow lot, then sell it to the community as ‘game-used sod.’
Otherwise, Huie continued, “there’s a pretty good plan in place. We’re trying to do it right. A lot of soccer teams share stadiums with baseball teams, but the extent we’re doing it is pretty extreme. There is no clay anywhere, so it makes for an aesthetic, pleasing look.”
Because soccer players are almost unanimous in their preference of natural grass over the artificial-turf surfaces at Starfire and CenturyLink Field, the state of the field meant love at first sight Wednesday.
“When you first hear you’re playing in a baseball stadium, your standards kind of drop a little bit,” said S2 captain Ray Saari. “But I’m very impressed by the work the Rainiers have done. It’s by far one of the best soccer pitches I’ve seen that’s been transformed from a baseball field.”
At 22, Saari is among the oldest members of a roster whose youngest player is 15. In that sense, the USL is more akin to a professional junior hockey league than, say, the Pacific Coast League, where 22-year olds are regarded as kids.
Another difference might be the intensity of the competition. In Triple-A baseball, the priority is to put players in position to contribute to the Major League affiliate. Winning games, and championships, is gravy.
For S2, winning games, and championships, is the foremost objective.
“Each player has his own ambition,” said Saari. “But as a team, we want to be a dominant team. Because at the end of the day, our organization is a dominant organization: Since 2009, we’re the winningest team in the MLS. That competitive drive is something we want to instill in every single player.
“Our team wants redemption from last year,” Saari continued, referring to S2’s record of 9-19-4 in 2017. “We had a very bad year, not gonna sugarcoat it, and we want to come out and make a good impression, not just for the fans for the whole organization.”
Promised Hutchinson: “You’re going to see a lot of energy. They will play a hands-on game and go for it. We’re never gonna sit back and just try to get a point in a draw.”
If the S2 comports itself like that, it’s possible the baseball fan who serves as Cheney Stadium’s head groundskeeper will become an expert on a sport he barely recognizes.
“I never thought I’d be putting soccer on a baseball field,” Huie said. “But it’s a process and a cool journey, and here we are.”