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Postgame Pontifications: PNW Experience exceeded all reasonable expectations

It was a nearly perfect celebration of the Seattle soccer community.

MikeRussellFoto / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Ever since the PNW Experience was announced I’ve had a mix of anticipation and nervousness. I was stoked that OL Reign would finally be playing at Lumen Field and I personally loved the idea of doing it this way, as the opening act of a Seattle-Portland doubleheader. I was also a little worried that with everything in the world, something might go wrong, people would stay away and it would be filed under “nice idea that didn’t actually work.”

So I was definitely pleasantly surprised to see the area outside Lumen Field bustling with activity when I showed up about 10 minutes before the OL Reign and Portland Thorns were scheduled to kick off, mostly with people wearing Sounders or Reign gear hustling to get to their seats.

I chose to take in most of the first half from a spot near the field in section 131, somewhere I could easily hear the singing coming out of the Brougham End. Although much of the crowd was a little late arriving to their seats, the Royal Guard-led section was in full voice from beginning to end. I had naively assumed that they would repurpose some of the ECS chants if for no other reason than the section might be a bit more familiar with those, only to be pleasantly surprised to hear almost exclusively Reign-specific chants. That most of the section also donned metallic gold-colored crowns was another nice touch.

But the highlight of that early part of the game had to be the tifo, which was big enough to cover most of sections 121-123, featured Reign head coach Laura Harvey holding a burning rose and the words “Bonfires are Back.”

That Harvey was spotlighted in such a way was particularly appropriate. When Bill Predmore founded the Reign, Harvey was one of his first hires. Harvey was so dedicated that when the Reign moved from Starfire to Memorial Stadium in their second year, she took it upon herself to repaint the soccer lines on the field to get them to regulation width.

When this game was first announced, there was no reason to think that Harvey would be involved in it, at least not in any official capacity. But the soccer gods work in funny ways and about a month after the game was announced, Harvey was re-hired as Reign head coach.

I can only imagine how it felt for her to be standing on the pitch in a state-of-the-art stadium, surrounded by a home crowd nearly four times bigger than the Reign’s previous high and seeing a 10,000-square-foot painting of herself.

“It wouldn’t have felt right if it were any other coach,” Predmore told me.

By the 15th minute or so, the crowd had mostly settled in, just in time to see Megan Rapinoe’s first goal. Rapinoe collected a Jess Fishlock pass near the top of the box, cut it back and then rifled it inside the near post. The crowd erupted, flames shot from the goalposts and Rapinoe just bathed in the glory.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Rapinoe eventually followed that up with a second goal that proved to be the winner, this one from the penalty spot.

Although the Thorns were able to pull one back, the Reign never seemed to be in much danger of dropping points. It allowed the game to play out in a festive manner, with the cherry on top being the attendance announced at an NWSL record 27,248.

Rapinoe had apparently expressed some skepticism that it would all play out in quite such a storybook fashion earlier in the week, a feeling born from having played here since 2013 mostly in front of thin crowds at stadiums nowhere close to the world-class quality of the players.

“It was very clear this is what this team deserved,” Rapinoe said in a press conference where she was sitting alongside fellow Reign original Fishlock. “We probably have the two most dramatic people in the entire league, entertaining as well.”

That she had to wait so long for all this to come to fruition was clearly part of her trepidation and a cause for some frustration. There have been close calls before, perhaps most notably when the Reign had hoped to play the 2014 NWSL championship game to Lumen Field, but were rebuffed by then-broadcast partner ESPN because the date would have had to be changed. There had also been serious discussions about moving to Lumen Field in 2018 only for costs and logistics to make it infeasible.

“It’s hard for it to not be a bit bittersweet because I think of all the years where we consistently have some of the best players in the world,” she continued. “It was only the first time that we’ve been able to play in a big stadium like this, I just think what could have been.

“Hopefully, this is a sign of things going forward. I think we deserve to play in a bigger stadium, I think we deserve to play in this stadium. Obviously, the fans loved it, we put on a good show. The fans were great today. It’s always so much better to play in front of people. My personality demands a lot of people, so the more the better. Overall I’m very happy with the fan numbers. Is there a petition we can start to just play here more often and have this many people?”

While there’s been some grumbling about the legitimacy of the record — which seem to mostly come through rose-tinted glasses — it should be said that the final number was based on actual scanned tickets as of the 80th minute or so. A Sounders official told me that they had scanned nearly 25,000 by the 15th minute. By halftime, there were probably close to that many in their seats.

These weren’t Sounders fans who just showed up three hours before kickoff because they had nothing better to do than sit in a packed stadium during a global pandemic. They were here to watch some of the world’s best soccer players and were surely entertained.

The decision to count attendance by scanned tickets as opposed to the industry standard of “distributed” tickets was a purposeful one, Predmore said.

“We didn’t want to have an empty record,” he said.

Whatever the number, there should be no doubt those fans were there to see the Reign. I saw thousands of fans wearing Reign gear and Predmore said merchandise sales were “extremely strong.” Even outside the Brougham End — which I should note was as packed as it is for any Sounders game — fans were engaged and participating in the easier-to-follow cheers. The people who were there to see it experienced world-class soccer in a world-class venue and surely enjoyed themselves.

It remains to be seen what the crowds would look like if the Reign were playing all of their games here, but they showed beyond any doubt that this is one of the better markets for women’s soccer in the country. Given the constant rumors that the Reign could be moved, it should serve as another reminder of how short-sighted that would be.

“If we were to come out here today and there was no one, that would obviously be a different conversation — and I’d have to have a word with all the soccer fans in Seattle,” Rapinoe said. “People love good football but they want an experience as well, they want to be able to come to a dope stadium and have all the things that that has. I think the passion is there always from the fans if you provide the opportunity for them. I think it’s a great investment.

“If anyone is still doubting, my eyes are all the way in the back of my head, back up and then back around again.”

This was a soccer celebration that surely exceeded any reasonable expectations. Beyond the impressive crowds — there were more than 45,000 in the stadium for the Sounders’ half of the doubleheader — fans packed into the North Plaza for the concert between games.

Even after the Sounders failed to follow the Reign’s lead, losing 2-0 to the Timbers, a team official I ran into outside the stadium was still buzzing with excitement. I think there’s a sense that this could prove to be a monumental day in Seattle soccer history.

Even Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer seemed to recognize that his team’s loss is likely to be a mere footnote.

“It was another seminal moment for soccer in this city,” Schmetzer said. “It was a big day for soccer in Seattle. I would like more opportunities to share the field with the Reign.’

There are a lot of moving parts to make something like this happen. I know there were complaints about long lines at concessions and how difficult it was to leave the stadium between the games, but it does seem like there’s a desire on both sides to turn this into a regular thing.

Maybe the Reign and Sounders spread it out over a weekend, rather than in a single day. Maybe the music/soccer festival concept is expanded into the north parking lot and onto Occidental Avenue. Maybe this is really just the start of a new, enhanced relationship between two world-class soccer organizations.

Whatever it becomes, we’ll still have this. I wouldn’t say it’s enough, but at least know it’s possible.

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