Sports

No place like a new home: Reign FC fans come out to experience Cheney Stadium for the first time

Fans celebrate after a goal by Reign FC’s Bethany Balcer in the first half. Reign FC played the Orlando Pride in a NWSL match at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Wash., on Sunday, April 21, 2019.
Fans celebrate after a goal by Reign FC’s Bethany Balcer in the first half. Reign FC played the Orlando Pride in a NWSL match at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Wash., on Sunday, April 21, 2019. joshua.bessex@gateline.com

Two hours before game time on Sunday, the Royal Guard — the supporters for the Reign FC — were already in Cheney Stadium’s parking lot, grilling hot dogs, handing out team scarves and signing up new members.

It was the first game in the NWSL team’s new Tacoma home after five seasons in Seattle’s 73-year-old Memorial Stadium. It was time to party at the new place that also houses the Tacoma Defiance, the Seattle Sounders’ USL soccer team, and the Tacoma Rainiers baseball team.

“It’s exciting for Tacoma,” said Cory Deckard, a Tacoma resident attending his first Reign FC game. “I grew up watching the Tacoma Tigers in this stadium and it’s exciting to watch the Rainiers here and to watch the Reign here —a professional team, a top-tier team.

“I think it’s great and I think it’s just the start for Tacoma.”

From first-timers to old-timers, young fans and team supporters, some 5,323 gathered to watch the Reign tie the Orlando Pride, 1-1. The result might have been a draw but for those in attendance, it was a win.

“Tacoma is the place to be,” said Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards. “This place understands the power of what this can do to a community. You’re looking around and just look at all these people here. Not everyone is from Tacoma but it is in Tacoma and it’s good to see our city right here.”

Royal Guard founder Kiana Coleman stressed how nice it was to have a facility that wasn’t built in 1946.

“I’ve never seen a bathroom that made children cry like they did at Memorial,” Coleman said. “But they would go in there and start crying because they didn’t want to be there.”

Jessica Strong, the interim president of the Royal Guard, said the supporters group was initially concerned about how to proceed after it was announced in late January the soccer team was moving its games to Tacoma for the 2019 season. She said there was fear the group might be replaced by a local group or disband completely.

And, there was the simple issue of just getting to the games.

“For some of our members who either have to work weekends or don’t have the money to get down to Tacoma, that’s a hardship some people have to face,” said Strong, who said the Royal Guard counts 77 members but is hoping to add more.

“For me, that was the concern more than anything is that I would be OK. But I know for some people this would mean they couldn’t go to games anymore.”

Shortly before the home opener, Reign FC announced that the Rally bus company would provide a shuttle for fans. The shuttle has three major pick up stops; Northgate, King Street Station, and a Southcenter stop in Tukwila. Tickets for a shuttle ride to the stadium start at just $25.

The game itself was truly a first for the Reign, who had never practiced or played on the Cheney Stadium grass. During training the team works out on the turf at nearby Foss High School but until Sunday, the field had been used for the Rainiers, Tacoma Defiance and some high school baseball.

“They (the grounds crew) really have it down to a science,” Reign FC Bill Predmore said. “They were playing baseball on here yesterday, and converted it over around 6 p.m. that evening. The grounds crew here is ridiculous.

“They’ve done a great job and the field looks perfect.”

Reign FC forward Bethany Balcer was pleased with the turf as well. In her first season with the club, she has not had to deal with the rough surface that Memorial Stadium provided.

“The field is great,” said Balcer, who scored for the Reign in the first half. “It plays really cleanly and it’s quality grass.”

Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement the crowd brought in the home opener.

“Every time they (the fans) yelled, it was loud,” Andonovski said. “It was really inspiring, I was really happy with it. There were actually times where I was smiling and looking at the fans saying this is gonna be good.”

Many of those fans were kids hoping to catch a glimpse of soccer’s biggest stars. Although Reign FC’s Megan Rapinoe did not play because of a lingering calf injury, her US women’s national teammate Alex Morgan suited up for the Orlando Pride.

Dozens of fans were hovering around both the home and away dugouts waiting for players to come out for warmups, hoping for autographs or a picture.

“When I found out that Alex Morgan was coming here I knew I had to get my ball signed,” said 10-year-old Lauren Stanfield of Tacoma.

The second of 11 remaining home games for the Reign is May 18 against Sky Blue FC.

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