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Sounders exploring possibility of moving USL games to Tacoma

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Project would include building a soccer-specific stadium.

Cheney Stadium, home of the Rainiers
Cheney Stadium, home of the Rainiers
Photo courtesy of Tacoma Rainiers

Although it's unlikely anything will change in the next couple years, the Seattle Sounders are officially exploring the possibility of moving their USL team's games to Tacoma, the team announced on Friday. The project is being led by the Tacoma Rainiers -- the Triple-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners -- who are working with the city in an attempt to build a soccer-specific stadium, but the Sounders have signed a letter on their behalf in support of the project.

Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer has apparently briefed the Sounders Community Trust -- which owns 20 percent of S2 -- and the Alliance Council about the plans, but also cautioned this is in the beginning stages and that "these things are very precarious and not certain by any stretch."

"There's a group of individuals working on a soccer complex and possibly a soccer stadium," Hanauer told Sounder at Heart. "The team is a separate issue. We've been working with the Rainiers, with whom we would theoretically have some sort of partnership. We haven't talked about how equity would work. Notionally, we like the Major League Baseball model where we'd run and pay for the technical side and they'd run and pay for the business."

Details are still understandably thin, but the plan appears to be for the SCT to keep its 20 percent stake in the team. The SCT told members in a letter: "Should the Club ultimately advance its discussions with individuals in Tacoma, the SCT's Board of Directors and the SCT as a whole will have to make some decisions about the future of the Trust."

The Sounders have been exploring the possibility of working with the Rainiers on a USL team since at least as far back as 2013, when the reserves played a game against Orlando City at Cheney Stadium. Orlando City was the USL affiliate of Sporting Kansas City at the time and featured Dom Dwyer, who scored two goals in that game.

Prior to settling on calling Starfire home for the USL team, there had been rumors of discussions with Boise, Everett and Spokane, and Hanauer had openly acknowledged the attractiveness of putting a team in Tacoma.

"We were very curious about what would happen to the soccer market there," said Hanauer, noting the advantages of getting a little farther away from Seattle. "We did that game down there and I remained in contact with the folks from the Rainiers. We check in every six months or so. I think we concluded at that time that Cheney wasn't a good longterm location, but if there was ever a possibility for a soccer-specific stadium in Tacoma that it would be very interesting."

Those discussions apparently started to heat up about six months ago and just earlier this week the Rainiers determined the timing was right to put the letter of interest into the public domain. The Tacoma Metro Parks department is apparently keen on expanding the number of soccer fields it has available in the city and a stadium could be the anchor.

The parks department will be leading the search for a stadium location, Rainiers president Aaron Artman said. He said the preference would be somewhere near Cheney Stadium or in downtown, although that would limit the ability to have a full built-out soccer complex.

Artman said the vision for a potential stadium would be to make it a "show piece" of USL and said they'd likely target a capacity of about 5,000.

Even if Rainiers can secure the location and funding for a soccer project, the earliest it would be in use would be 2018 and more likely 2019. The Sounders would also likely continue to call Starfire their training home, but it's at least possible the USL team would rebrand and that the first team could potentially play U.S. Open Cup games in Tacoma. Hanauer said those last two issues would be discussed with the SCT and Alliance Council.

"For the time being, it's full-steam ahead at Starfire, status quo, try to make Starfire work," he said.

Starfire, while convenient, has not been an ideal setting for launching what was envisioned as a somewhat separate team. Not only is scheduling complicated by the heavy presence of youth soccer, the stadium fails to meet most of the USL guidelines, including having a smaller-than 5,000-seat capacity. Last year, S2 averaged about 2,200 fans per game and early returns suggest they'll struggle to reach that number this year. Just seven of the 24 teams in USL drew a smaller average audience.

Moving to Tacoma would get a likely renamed S2 a little farther outside the Sounders' shadow and allow them to have more of an identity all their own. And while there's a not-insignificant portion of the Sounders' season-ticket base in Pierce and Thurston counties, a USL team in Tacoma wouldn't be competing quite so directly with the Sounders and Reign for entertainment dollars