The party decks were packed for the Seattle Sounders 2 debut in Cheney Stadium on Friday night. This was not unusual. The ballpark’s party decks are a popular destination for business functions, receptions and reunions on those dreamy midsummer nights when mingling is the attraction and the athletic contest is a casually observed sideshow.
What was unusual Friday is that the party-deck fans were more engaged in the action than with each other. Before the gates opened, Rainiers president Aaron Artman, whose team runs the business side of the S2 operation, sensed the contrast between a baseball and soccer audience.
“In baseball, so much of our game is experience,” Artman said. “People aren’t necessarily dying on wins and losses. This crowd cares about that.
“I think our concession stands will be empty when the game is played, and there will be a rush at halftime. That’s just fun, to have what happens matter in terms of winning and losing. Not that fans don’t care at Rainiers games, but I think these fans are pretty die-hard.”
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That few spectators were familiar with any of the players on the Tacoma roster didn’t matter. Nor did it matter that recognizing what franchise is where in the 33-team United Soccer League could take five years, by which time there could be a dozen other teams to recognize.
What mattered is Tacoma had representation in a professional sports league with a defending champion — that would be Louisville City FC — and a bright future at the second-highest level of American soccer.
S2 had made the Starfire Sports complex in Tukwila its home since 2015. Although holding matches at a site where the team trains was a convenience, the relatively few fans who watched those matches loomed as an issue.
Starfire’s seating capacity is 3,500, or 1,500 below the 5,000 the league has established as a minimum for USL venues. Crowds for S2 home games last season averaged less than 1,000.
Opening at Cheney Stadium didn’t merely provide an energy boost for the S2 players on Friday. It was more like electrotherapy.
“We’re excited to play in front of 6,000 people. That’s everything you want,” midfielder Ray Saari, the team captain, said the other day. “Every player wants to play in front of a good crowd, and on top of that, try to mimic a little bit of what we do at CenturyLink Field with the first team. All those things are important for our team.
“It’s an adjustment. As you go higher and higher in the system, you obviously play in front more and more people. There’s a difference from playing at CenturyLink in front of 50,000 people, and playing in front of 500.”
The crowd for the opener offered what veteran Sounders forward David Estrada calls “a bridge to play at CenturyLink.
“For these young guys who haven’t played with the first team — or even trained with them — to get an atmosphere like this really helps with their development and the intensity of their play,” Estrada said Wednesday. “If it’s a packed house and the fans are loud, that aspect of the game helps kids mature.”
A few minutes after the team wrapped up an introductory training session at Cheney Stadium this week, S2 coach John Hutchinson elaborated on how exposure to noise benefits a developmental player.
“When kids finally make the first team and they go to CenturyLinkg and there’s 40,000 people, they understand what that means,” Hutchinson said. “To have 6,000 people cheering and shouting for them is incredible. Last year we struggled for crowds at Starfire. When the players were told about amount of tickets they sold here, they got very excited.
“They’re very young, very exciting, up and down like any youngsters. They do good and bad stuff. Our youngest player is 15. Our oldest is 23. Some first teamers occasionally will come down and play, which is great for our boys.”
As for the atmosphere of the second soccer match to be played in Cheney Stadium — the first was held in 2013, before some 2,000 fans — the size of the crowd alone guaranteed a more festive mood than five years ago.
The S2 Supporters club, nestled over the first-base dugout, chanted and sang to the beat of a giant bass drum. The Supporters seemed to gather steam after the sun went and the pleasant afternoon turned early-spring chilly.
So did a late-arriving crowd whose tardiness likely had something to do with a Friday afternoon traffic snarl. When action began at 7:07 p.m., as many seats were empty as were occupied. By 7:37, the bowl was mostly full to watch Timbers2 forward Augustine Williams drill a 30th-minute shot past S2 goalkeeper Alex Mengels.
There was a brief, audible groan after Williams’ goal, but soon the Supporters were chanting and waving flags and celebrating Felix Chenkham’s equalizer on a penalty kick, which preceded the Nick Hinds’ goal that gave S2 a 2-1 lead in the 49th minute.
Moments later, there was a great rush to the concession stands.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath