I can’t pretend to vividly remember a lot about the gameplay of the first match I saw at Starfire Stadium, up until now the tiny facility in Tukwila where the Seattle Sounders hosted most of their U.S. Open Cup matches. I know it was against the LA Galaxy in 2010 for an early round game. I know the Sounders won 2-0. But I’d be lying if I said I remembered that Nate Jaqua scored both goals or that Miguel Montaño (!!!!) had both assists.
What I remember about that game were the sensory feelings, or at least those assembled from about a dozen trips there. I remember walking into what felt like a stadium where you might watch the neighborhood kids play a club match (because it was). I remember making my way to my seats only to be stopped by security guards, who had to close the walkway so that players could cross our paths and make their way onto the field for warmups.
I definitely remember standing with ECS — there wasn’t room in the three-person press box anyway — and them doing a very off-color chant directed at Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders (I’d later learn that he was a former Timbers player, which at least gave context to the vitriol). What stood out wasn’t so much the chant itself, but that ECS comprised what was probably a quarter of the grandstand, that the chant was so loud and they were so close that Saunders couldn’t help but hear it. We could see the look on Saunders’ face, and it sure seemed as though he was least a little uncomfortable (although his resting face had that look too...).
I remember the feeling after the Sounders scored, the adrenaline rush when hearing the crowd absolutely erupt in cheer. I know better, but it sure seemed like the sellout crowd of about 4,500 was as loud as the 30,000-plus at CenturyLink.
At some point, I know, I made it over to the beer garden in the southeast corner of the stadium. I remember it being so packed and so close to the field that I was convinced nothing else in American sport could mimic it.
Most vividly, though, I remember making my way to the postgame press conference, past the fans hanging on the rails trying to get players’ attention. I remember being struck by how often it worked. Virtually every player stopped multiple times to sign autographs and take pictures. I remember that Roger Levesque was the last player to get to the locker room because he was committed to fulfilling revery request he received.
It was about as close as you could get in sports to watching a mega-band play at a small club. I think it was how I got really hooked on the Sounders, and I’ve heard many other fans say the same thing about watching games at Starfire.
I repeated that experience many times over the next few years, frankly for as long as I could justify heading to Tukwila on a weekday evening. Those games are, without a doubt, some of my most cherished sporting experiences, whether I was standing with ECS or sitting in the auxiliary press box (where I’d also end up needing to stand anyway).
The recent announcement that the Sounders would be hosting their fourth-round U.S. Open Cup match against the Portland Timbers at Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium likely means the end of the team’s Starfire Stadium experience, especially with a soccer-specific stadium likely to open within a couple years. There had long been signs that this was coming — most notably when the Sounders moved their USL affiliate to Tacoma last year — but I can’t blame anyone for feeling a sense of loss by this move.
For Sounders fans who might be a bit newer to all this — or were just among the majority who never made it to Starfire — I imagine this is not nearly as big of a deal.
Whether you experienced it or not, though, it’s worth remembering just how important the “Starfire Experience” was to shaping an era of Sounders fandom. That the Sounders went 21-1-1 there all-time in the Open Cup — including matches they played there while a USL side — only helped build the legend.
With that in mind, here are some of the most iconic Sounders matches to have been played at Starfire:
Sept. 29, 2007 | USL Championship Game vs. Atlanta Silverbacks
Although the vast majority of the Sounders’ USL existence was played at the stadium now known as CenturyLink Field, the 2007 USL Championship game was played at Starfire because their normal home was unavailable for one reason or another. Nearly 5,000 fans packed into Starfire that day, and saw the Sounders stomp the Atlanta Silverbacks 4-0 for their second league title under Brian Schmetzer. That team featured five players who would eventually make the Sounders’ MLS roster two years later.
What made it iconic: It’s the only title game the Sounders ever played at Starfire and it’s still the only time a Seattle soccer team has won a title game there (the Reign, sadly, lost the 2014 NWSL final at Starfire). As it turned out, this was about two months before the Sounders formally announced their plans to join MLS. It’s obviously impossible to say how much it affected things, but this surely helped build the momentum that led to them breaking every conceivable record when it came to ticket sales.
July 21, 2009 | U.S. Open Cup semifinals vs. Houston Dynamo
By the time the Sounders joined MLS, they had already started to build their reputation as Open Cup darlings. In each of the previous two years, they had knocked off multiple MLS opponents on their way to the Open Cup semifinals. That’s where they found themselves for a third straight year, facing a team that had won MLS Cup two of the previous three years, had finished second in the Supporters’ Shield standings the previous season, and were contending again in 2009. The Dynamo scored first and were looking as though they’d advance despite being thoroughly outplayed and giving up multiple quality chances. But in the 89th minute, Nate Jaqua — who had played most of the match with a comically oversized bandage around his head after sustaining a head injury, giving rise to Zombie Jaqua — latched onto a ball in the box and put it inside the far post to get the game to overtime. That set the stage for Stephen King to fire home the winner from close range, sending the crowd into a state of pandemonium anyone who was there will insist has never been reached before or since.
What made it iconic: If you’re looking for one match that took Starfire from a quaint little detail about the Sounders into one of legendary status, this is the game most will agree where it all started. To this day @ZombieJaqua remains an active Twitter account, even if it’s not quite as big of a part of the Sounders zeitgeist as it once was. Talk to just about anyone who was there and they’ll tell you this was the game that got them absolutely hooked on the Sounders.
Aug. 30, 2011 | U.S. Open Cup semifinals vs. FC Dallas
At this point, the Sounders were the two-time defending Open Cup champions and were trying to become the first team in more than 40 years to three-peat. They were riding a 15-game Open Cup unbeaten streak and were clearly considered the bullies on the playground when it came to this tournament. FC Dallas seemed committed to matching the Sounders’ intensity from the opening whistle, and set the tone with a hard tackle on Fredy Montero by Daniel Cruz that drew a yellow card in the 12th minute. Montero got his revenge in the 40th minute, though, when he laced in a left-footed shot from outside the penalty area to give the Sounders a 1-0 lead. Dallas had the better play for much of the game from that point, but couldn’t find the equalizer. In the closing moments, Daniel Hernandez bloodied Mike Fucito with an elbow — amazingly not even getting a yellow card— and then was shown a red card for abusive language during a meltdown after the final whistle. To put a bow on it, Hernandez bitterly “congratulated” the Sounders on winning the “Starfire Cup” following the final about a month later.
What made it iconic: Aside from giving us a sequel to Zombie Jaqua — fittingly called Zombie Fucito — this game will be remembered for the “Blackburn reject” chant that Sounders fans greeted George John with when he entered at the start of the second half. Not only was John a UW graduate, a Shoreline native and a bit of a local sports hero, but his family were longtime Sounders season-ticket holders and were in the crowd. After the game, John’s brother got into an argument with some fans who were continuing to jeer him, pointedly reminding them that he was effectively one of their own every other day of the season.
June 24, 2014 | U.S. Open Cup Fifth Round vs. San Jose Earthquakes
A year earlier, the Sounders’ run of four straight Open Cup finals came to a crashing halt when they were bounced from the tournament by the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the Fourth Round. And for 120 minutes against the Earthquakes it was looking like maybe the Sounders’ Open Cup magic had run out. Despite 31 shots — nine of which were on frame and two more that hit the woodwork — all they had to show for their efforts was a 1-1 tie, sending the match to a shootout. It was the first time a Sounders match at Starfire had gone to penalties. Gonzalo Pineda opened the shootout by burying his attempt and Khari Stephenson followed up with a conversion of his own. Marco Pappa then coolly slotted his away while Alan Gordon missed his off the post. In Round 3, Brad Evans converted and Marcus Hahnemann denied JJ Koval, giving the ball a sweet kiss after securing it. Lamar Neagle then clinched the win by blasting his attempt into the back of the net, setting off another massive celebration.
What made it iconic: Despite the low score, the match was played at a hectic pace that made the field seem considerably smaller than the listed dimensions. If it seemed like the whole game consisted of a series of shots and set pieces, it’s probably because the two teams combined for 46 shots, 38 fouls and 26 corners. But what puts this match in the pantheon was its “only at Starfire” moment: After Neagle converted, Hahnemann turned around and traded his jersey for a beer, which he promptly finished on the field. Could there have possibly been a more fitting way for the legendary goalkeeper to make his final professional appearance?
July 9, 2014 | U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinals vs. Portland Timbers
Believe it or not, there was a time not so long ago when playing the Timbers in the Open Cup felt special. When the Cascadia rivals were drawn together in 2014, it marked the first time they’d met in Open Cup when both were members of MLS and the first time they’d faced off in the tournament since 2010. This was also the first time the Timbers would visit Starfire for a competitive match in seven years. That set the stage for an absolutely amazing encounter, so high on intensity that Opta recorded more than 130 duels and 34 fouls. Osvaldo Alonso opened the scoring in the 69th minute on a flying side-footed volley that somehow ‘megged goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and deflected in off the underside of the crossbar. That looked like it might be enough to get the Sounders through as the game went into stoppage time. But then Darlington Nagbe equalized in the third minute of second-half stoppage time off a Steve Zakuani assist to send the match to extra time. Diego Chara saw red in the 99th minute, and then Kenny Cooper scored the winner in the 110th minute. Pappa added an insurance goal in the 115th.
What made it iconic: Truth be told, there wasn’t really one moment that screamed “only at Starfire.” Rather, it was just a classic match played between two heated opponents in an atmosphere that was as intense as any in the rivalry’s history. It also served as an almost perfect prequel for the following year’s encounter. If you really want one moment to latch onto, though, this was the hair-flip game.
June 16, 2015 | U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round vs. Timbers
Coming off the previous year’s instant classic, this had all the makings of a fitting sequel. We. Had. No. Idea. The Sounders were leading the Supporters’ Shield race, while the Timbers were starting to turn around a season that had not gone as planned up to that point (and would end up with a MLS Cup). Both starting lineups featured a handful of normal starters, among them Obafemi Martins and Diego Valeri. In retrospect, maybe it was all a bit much for a fourth-round encounter. The first half was high-energy, but not particularly memorable. When Valeri scored on the Timbers’ first shot on goal early in the second half, though, tensions rose even further. Timbers goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey made a couple saves on point-blank attempts and then Brad Evans was shown a red card in the 69th minute, ratcheting up anxiety even more. A few minutes later, Clint Dempsey was brought in off the bench, a sign that Sigi Schmid had no intention of letting the match slip away. For awhile, it looked as though it had the intended effect as Martins equalized in the 79th minute off a Dylan Remick corner kick. But shortly after Schmid used his final sub to bring on Tyrone Mears, Martins went down with an injury.
That meant the Sounders would have to see out the game with just nine men. Although the Sounders were able to get the match to overtime, the Timbers had most of the play and went back ahead in the 100th minute through Rodney Wallace. Two more Sounders were eventually red-carded in the 113th minute and Maxi Urruti put away the match with a 116th minute goal.
What made it iconic: Where do I even start? Before I get to how it became known as the “Red Card Wedding”, this match had plenty of points of conflict. The Sounders had protested the assignment of Daniel Radford to the head referee spot, suggesting he was far too inexperienced to manage such a high-profile match. In another sign that they didn’t respect his decision, the Sounders changed jerseys at halftime, apparently upset that the Timbers had been allowed to wear their dark green tops after the Sounders had announced they would be wearing black (ignoring that the Timbers’ only other choice at the time was a dark red). This was apparently done without getting permission from the referee crew.
That was strange enough, but the double-red card in the 113th minute is when the match took on legendary status. With the Sounders still clinging to the hope of finding an equalizer, Micheal Azira was shown a red card for a borderline elbow. While protesting the call, Clint Dempsey then knocked Radford’s book onto the ground. He was first shown a yellow card. Dempsey then picked up the book and tore it in pieces, drawing the red card. At that point, it really did seem like Starfire might descend into chaos. Dempsey had to be physically restrained from Radford and then sarcastically clapped in the assistant referee’s face as he walked off the pitch. A trash can was literally thrown onto the field from the beer garden. Schmid effectively ejected himself, watching the final moments from the corner flag in a self-admitted effort to keep himself from “choking” Radford. The referees had to be be escorted off the field by police, as fans hurled insults and debris onto the field. It’s safe to say a more memorable game has never been played at Starfire, and perhaps in the history of the Open Cup.
As it turned out, the Red Card Wedding marked the end of the era, even if we didn’t know it at the time. Although the Sounders hosted two more Open Cup games at Starfire — including one in 2017 against the Timbers — things were never the same after that. The Sounders had done such a good job creating an atmosphere so intense that something like the Red Card Wedding was almost bound to happen, where emotions spilled over and it seemed moments away from actual chaos. There was little choice but to ratchet things down after that.
That 2017 encounter with the Timbers, for instance, featured two lineups almost devoid of starters. Schmetzer and Caleb Porter seemed to be calling a sort of truce. That the Sounders won 2-1 was a virtual footnote.
Moving games to Tacoma is just a logical progression. Wednesday’s match is expected to sell out, and will almost certainly set a club record for home attendance at a non-final Open Cup match. It will mark the start of a new era. It won’t be the same, but maybe it can be just as good in its own way.