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Inside the Starfire Fortress

Nate Jaqua is one of the Sounders more physical players and, not coincidentally has played well at Starfire.
Nate Jaqua is one of the Sounders more physical players and, not coincidentally has played well at Starfire.

Let's flashback to last year's post previewing the US Open Cup Semifinal against Chivas USA. Here's an update on the record of Seattle there; in the three seasons with the MLS Sounders playing Open Cup and Reserve Games at Starfire they are now 17-0-0 (5 against non-MLS teams) with 44 goals for and 12 against 14-0-0 with a +24 GD.

* * *

Stephen King played in a grand total of 15 competitive matches during his slightly more than one season with the Sounders. His official MLS record shows less than 500 minutes spent on the pitch in Rave Green.

Yet, many Sounders fans have a special place in their heart for a player who never even made the 18-man roster during the first six matches of this season.

The reason is relatively simple.

King's goal in the fourth minute of overtime during last season's U.S. Open Cup semifinal against the Houston Dynamo sent the Sounders to their first Open Cup championship match -- after the USL team had fallen in the semis each of the previous two seasons -- and allowed the Sounders to win a trophy during their first season in MLS.

It was also the biggest highlight in a match full of them. From the collision that caused Nate Jaqua to play most of the match with a bandage wrapped around his head (and begat the Twitter personality @ZombieJaqua) to the equalizing goal Jaqua scored in the 89th minute to King's eventual game-winner and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's overtime ejection, the match is considered by many who were there to be the most exciting ever played in the Sounders' still young MLS history.

That it was also played at tiny Starfire Sports Complex hardly seems to be a coincidence.

The Tukwila soccer facility has been a part of Sounders history since 2005 when the USL team started playing some of their matches there when Qwest was unavailable or impractical. The team continued to use it as its home away from home until 2008 when the Sounders, prepping for their ascension to MLS, invested millions to make it their headquarters and training facility. The team has since constructed new fields, built locker rooms and offices and expanded the stadium, which now is capable of hosting crowds of nearly 5,000 spectators.

Considering the match is already sold out, Wednesday's Open Cup semifinal against Chivas USA should see at least that many fans.

And just like last year's semifinal, it promises to be an experience unlike anything MLS players are used to.

"I think it’s so cool playing here, just how the fans are right on top of you," Sounders midfielder Mike Fucito said. "Obviously, it’s not 36,000 people (like Qwest Field) although it gets pretty freaking loud. It’s just got to be a nightmare for the other team.

"I think they sort of expect it coming into Seattle, but until you actually come here you can’t really get the whole effect and it is different than Qwest. I’m sure it’s a little shokcing at first so we try to use that to our advantage."

So far, the Sounders have done just that, especially in Open Cup play. The Sounders have never lost at Starfire in the domestic tournament, winning all 10 of their matches and outscoring their opponents 27-5 in the process. Of those 10 wins, six have been against MLS opponents, collectively outscoring that bunch 10-2.

Brian Schmetzer, a current Sounders assistant coach, was the head coach of the USL Sounders from 2002-08. Perhaps more than anyone else, he understands the unique edge the stadium provides.

"We have an advantage because the field is only 3-4 yards smaller than Qwest but it 'plays' much smaller than Qwest," Schmetzer said. "Our tactics for playing on a 'smaller' field are very refined after the amount of games we have played there and it gives us a tactical edge. Then add to it the fan support and atmosphere where fans are very close, which gives it an intimate feel, and you have a recipe for success."

Stafire's exact dimensions are 70 yards by 100 yards, as opposed to 74x114 at Qwest.

With space at a premium, it makes sense that the Sounders' more physical players seem to be the ones who have most thrived at Starfire.

"I prefer it (on a smaller field)," Ianni said. "You’re close and there’s lots of tackles going on and I think some of the more skillful players don’t like it as much because it's constantly harder for them to get room and run at people. They’ve constantly got guys on their backs, but for defneders it makes for a fun battle. But it makes for a very quick game because you don’t have time on the ball."

With three goals in his past two games at Starfire, Jaqua's physical style would seem to be a perfect fit. 

"I don’t mind it as much because I don’t mind getting hit too much," said Jaqua, whose two-goal performance against the Galaxy in this year's quarterfinal earned him Player of the Round honors. "You have to find your pockets, because it is smaller and the game doesn’t open up as much. You have to do a bit more of the dirty work, the battling and winning 50/50s. I enjoy that."

As much as some of the Sounders may like playing at Stafire, they seem even more excited about the possibility of playing the next Open Cup match at Qwest.

"To win a championship in front of your home crowd is very unique and something I’ve never had the experience to do," Ianni said. "So i’m very excited to get that opportunity if we win this game on Wednesday."

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