SEATTLE — Perhaps this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Although the Seattle Sounders and OL Reign have always had a cordial relationship, it has traditionally been more like neighbors who might borrow a cup of sugar than who are regularly invited for dinner.
The reasons for that have never been entirely clear, but in the here and now, the two sides have finally come together to put on what promises to be one of the most memorable sporting events of the summer when they play a doubleheader on Sunday that’s been dubbed “The PNW Experience.”
“I think my initial reaction [was] it’s about time,” OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock said at a players-only joint press conference on Tuesday. “But, obviously, what you take a step back and you look at the whole situation, and what it means to actually get this done.”
Midfielder Kelyn Rowe said that the players for both teams had talked about an event like this informally, and the discussions among the team officials had gone on for years, but nothing official had come to fruition for a variety of reasons, until this year.
“I know it’s not something as simple as we think it is, but we’re like well this is actually a pretty simple concept,” Fishlock said. “Obviously it takes a lot of work [but] just really happy that they got to figure this out.”
But as the Sounders and Reign prepare to take on their respective rivals to the south on the same pitch for the first time ever, the event has been billed almost more as a summer festival than a pair of soccer matches. Among the attractions are Jimi Hendrix tribute, music stages, food trucks and limited edition rivalry merchandise.
All of that before a first-of-its-kind soccer doubleheader.
On the field, there is the matter of two opponents that will be eager — desperate even — to take the air out of the balloon. Starting with the NWSL league-leading Portland Thorns, who are undefeated in their last five games.
“We have to make sure we don’t let the occasion override the game,” Fishlock said. “The game is the most important thing for us.”
The return of Laura Harvey to the sidelines will help the Reign focus on the task at hand, as they prepare to play in front of what will potentially be the biggest crowd in NWSL regular-season history.
“Laura’s just come in and we’re excited to work with her,” Fishlock said. “Having Laura in for this game specifically is so good because she knows what this is and what it means. She’ll know that it’s going to be a great spectacle, but it’s a game that we want to win more than anything.”
Taking on the top team in the league would of course be challenging enough, but there is also a desire to get a result to set the mood for the day.
“We’re definitely going to set the tone for the boys,” defender Lauren Barnes said. “Jess and I have been here for nine years, and we’ve supported the boys for a long time, we’re just happy to come together and bring communities together to be able to do this.”
It would be remiss not to mention this represents a homecoming of sorts for the Reign to the city of Seattle, if not Lumen Field. In their previous incarnation, the Reign called Memorial Stadium home, before the dilapidated state of the stadium forced a move to Tacoma. It represents an opportunity to renew acquaintances for fans who haven’t followed the team to their new home.
“We were up [in Seattle] for six years [so] having this crossover is huge,” Barnes said. “We also have a fanbase here in Seattle that we hope to bring back. Maybe coming down to Cheney has been a little bit far, but seeing familiar faces and having this combined is going to be incredible.”
For the Sounders’ part, they’ll be able to watch the Reign ahead of their matchup with the Timbers, who the Sounders throttled 6-2 on the road to being their unprecedented 9-point, 7-day road sweep. At least some of the players are planning to watch the Reign match in person, leave the stadium and then go through their normal routine.
“It’s going to be amazing for everyone to come early and watch the girls do their thing and afterwards stay and watch us,” defender Brad Smith said. “It’s going to be a great spectacle.”
Still, Rowe said it’s important to enjoy the moment for what it is, and then transition to the game.
“It’s obviously been a long week for us, being away we had a lot of success,” Rowe said. “It’s about not taking the moment for granted. You take it in, see all the fans. You watch the game beforehand, but once you step on that line you become a professional again.”
Even with the two matches yet to be played, it’s not hard to imagine a future where such events become a regular occurrence at Lumen Field. Players on both teams have long since had a friendly off-field relationship. Rowe and Barnes were in college at UCLA at the same time and stayed in touch as they continued their professional careers, while Fishlock has worked with Brad Evans and Lamar Neagle on various community events. Barnes and Rowe have also each taken turns wearing one another’s jerseys as part of their pregame “fits.”
“I think we’ve always had a good player relationship between Sounders and the Reign off the field,” Fishlock said. “That has always been there. It’s just that the hierarchy has never been able to make use of that to its full potential.”
Amplifying the relationship to reach that potential starts this Sunday, with what everyone hopes will be a large crowd, and six points.
“I hope that moving forward that this event is so successful, that it’s not just once a year, but it’s a regular thing,” Fishlock said. “We have two great teams here, two successful teams. It actually makes a lot of sense to do this as much as you can.”
For Rowe, Sunday is just the beginning. “It’s a good start,” he said.