As Mike Seamon went to defend a corner kick shortly after a Sounders goal, he recalled barely being able to breathe.
"There was all this smoke," he said with a grin. "Some of them, I don't even think they were watching the game. They were still hugging each other and jumping. I just looked up there and said 'Oh my gosh.'"
The smoke was created by flares and other devices set off in the Emerald City Supporters section of the stands, which seemed be even more boisterous than at many Qwest matches.
As usual, their chanting, dancing and flag waving was almost nonstop. There may have been just a tick over 4,500 fans in attendance on Wednesday -- about a fifth of what normally show up for games at Qwest -- but almost all of them seemed to be actively engaged in the match. Combined, it created what is almost certainly the greatest atmosphere in U.S. Open Cup competition.
So far, results would seem to indicate that it's also the best homefield advantage. The Sounders have won their last seven USOC matches at the Tukwila facility -- dating back to their 2007 loss to FC Dallas in the semifinals -- and have won nine of their past 10 matches against MLS opponents there, including four as a member of the USL.
"I enjoy it, it's fun," Sounders forward Nate Jaqua said about playing at Starfire. "The fans are right on top of you, it's loud and I like the fact that they put in new turf. It slows it down and you can find pockets of play where as last year the ball was just bouncing all over the place."
As much as players may enjoy playing the occasional game there -- after all, they train in the same facility -- the fan's experience can be a bit more a mixed-bag.
During the 90-plus minutes of play, I found my first match-watching experience at Stafire to be completely without complaint. The field looked great. The awning provided plenty of shade. It was loud.
The real treat, though, was spending $15 on tickets that were closer to the action than all but a select few at Qwest. We were seated about 10 rows up and about halfway between the penalty box and centerline in the section next to the ECS. I really did feel like we had some of the best seats in the house.
Immediately after the game, it was also very neat to see how accessible the players were. Hundreds of fans lined up along the pathway to the lockerroom and players stayed long after the game signing autographs. That's not totally unheard of at Qwest, but the length of time players spent with fans seemed significantly longer than normal.
One of the cooler things I saw was Jaqua arriving late to the interview area because he had been signing autographs. After spending about five minutes with the media, he ran -- RAN! -- back out to the walkway and continued signing. I'm pretty sure that's not happening at Qwest.
Generally speaking, I'd say it's this kind of stuff that makes Starfire matches a special treat for diehard fans who don't get as many opportunities to get up close and personal with the players.
Getting there, as I've detailed, can be a bit of a hassle unless you already live in the southern portion of the greater Seattle area. For the rest of us, it's a matter of choosing between less-than-ideal modes of transportation. I will say that I took the bus from the north end of downtown, and was happy to find that the trip took about 40 minutes. The 150 bus cuts through downtown via the transit tunnel, makes its way through SODO and then hops on the freeway. As bus rides go, it really isn't bad.
I was given a ride home, and also experienced leaving the facility via car. Honestly, I didn't think it was as bad as getting out of any other sports facility.
Even more than getting there, I think the relative isolation of Starfire is what irks many fans. Part of what has made Sounders games so popular, I think, is how easy it is to make a day out of it. You show up early to eat at one of the many restaurants surrounding the field and stay late to go pub-hopping. Say what you want about Tukwila and the area around it, but it doesn't hold a candle to Qwest in this regard.
if I had one major complaint about Starfire, it was the food service. The selection and prices were fine. The fact that I waited more than 40 minutes to get three hotdogs -- in a line that wasn't really that long -- spoke to a significant organizational problem. Hopefully, that's something that can be fixed.
I wasn't real keen on the idea of a beer garden, either. I'm sure there are some regulations that forbid alcohol in the stands, but not being able to be at my seat with a beer was enough to keep me from drinking (although, maybe that's not such a bad thing).
As far as I understand, the Sounders made some significant changes here. Last year, they were taking tickets right outside the stadium and weren't allowing in-and-out privileges to most of the concession area. They've now moved ticket-taking farther out and allowed free movement to the concession area. This seems like a huge improvement.
I've heard many people deride Starfire as a minor-league facility. I'd say they are right. There's no video replay board. The main concession area feels like it would be right at home if it was hosting to a youth soccer tournament. A significant number of the seats are exposed to the weather.
Yet, I find it to be a perfectly acceptable and even preferable place to watch a game, especially if the alternative is a half-full Qwest. I'm sure a U.S. Open Cup championship game would be a big enough deal to entice people into the stadium. It would be nice if there were similar assurances for a semifinal match.
Unfortunately, I don't get the sense there are. If the decision is between getting less than 10,000 at Qwest or nearly 5,000 at Starfire, I'd much rather the Sounders continue to host early USOC matches there.