Sounders bid bittersweet farewell to Starfire training facility

The concept was experimental.

Could a professional team plant their training grounds in the middle of a play field geared toward children — i.e. their biggest fans? With a modest budget and limited options, that’s what the Sounders did 15 years ago in carving space at Starfire Sports in Tukwila as home base for their soccer operations.

“We knew if this blew up, the Sounders were going to cutoff the access,” said Chris Slatt, a Starfire co-founder and executive chair, who championed the idea to inspire kids. “So, (Starfire president and CEO) Ben (Oliver) and our operational staff worked hard to make sure that didn’t happen. It worked out really well.”

But after 15 years, the Sounders are moving to a new training facility. On Tuesday, when the Sounders from a preseason camp in Marbella, Spain, it will instead be to an all-encompassing Sounders FC Center at Longacres in Renton.

“This whole thing, we knew was coming as they became more and more successful,” Slatt said. “It started to get more difficult to meet their needs over the last few years. So, it’s with our blessing that they’ve got this cool thing they’re doing.”

Starfire is a nonprofit organization that began in 2002 to counter King County closing a slew of parks and recreation facilities due a budget shortfall. The aim is to make soccer inclusive.

The USL iteration of the Sounders — with Brian Schmetzer as the head coach — trained and played matches at the approximate 4,500-seat Starfire Stadium in 2008. When co-owner Adrian Hanauer led the jump to MLS, more was needed for the team.

First, permission was needed from Tukwila city leadership to convert four softball fields to soccer following a public hearing. After unanimous approval, there were agreements between the Sounders and Starfire that the nonprofit’s mission would be upheld. Everything had to also be available for community use.

With approximately $10 million in funding coming from Hanauer’s father’s estate, the installment of one oversized grass and one turf field, two smaller fields, locker rooms, fitness rooms, office space and a computer lab were built.

Gerard “Jerry” Hanauer was an avid fan of the USL Sounders, stating the style of play reminded him of teams in his native Germany. He died in December 2007. Starfire began their reconstruction in 2008, the Sounders playing their inaugural season in 2009.

The twist with Starfire’s now 54-acre complex is the Sounders’ indoor facilities are accessible by the public. The path to the field is a long walk from the main building that on weekends and some summer weekdays is teaming with youth soccer players and their families.

“It’s like a subconscious thing,” said John Colwell, whose four children all played youth soccer at Starfire. Now ages 25 through 19, they recall when U.S. international Clint Dempsey signed with Seattle in 2013 as a turning point.

“That’s when the Sounders went fully rock star,” Colwell said. “Before, there were a lot of great players, but it never had that vibe.”

Sounders would often be spotted signing autographs, posing for pictures, or tossing a shirt to adoring young fans as they leave the training grounds. And nearby fans could take lunch breaks to watch training from hillsides on the perimeter of the field, some getting a brief chat with technical staff after the sessions.

Sounders supporters have released green and blue smoke bombs and had drum lines provide the beat back to the locker rooms for players before big matches. When MLS opted to return to play amid the onset of the COVID pandemic, supporters were also at Starfire pleading for the team not to travel to Florida for a tournament.

The wildest interaction was when Argentina’s national team trained on the Sounders’ field before a 2016 Copa America Centenario group stage match. The team had Starfire install black windscreens for privacy, but people tore little holes to peer through and climbed trees to see the sessions that included midfielder Lionel Messi.

Players like Sounders forward Jordan Morris said the interactions — including the time a fan brought a baby kangaroo to training — are among the things they’ll miss about Starfire.

“It created a humanity aspect,” said Kelyn Rowe, a Federal Way native who retired his MLS career with the Sounders earlier this month. “There are bad days, and you just want to get to the locker room, but if there’s a child there, you can’t say no. In your heart and your actual soul, you can’t give away that moment for that child. It brings you back to humanity and that this game is not just about soccer. It’s about the community. It’s what I loved the most.”

“That’s peak soccer to me,” Colwell added. “You can hear the players talking and it’s the same field where maybe you played high school soccer. It feels so down home, and you can meet the players afterward. I remember [the late Sounders coach] Sigi Schmid stopped and talked to us for the longest time about tactics and it was just brilliant.”

The Sounders’ initial setup at Starfire was rare in the then 15-team MLS. Since 2017, the league has calculated more than $500 million has been invested in training facilities among the current 29 teams.

Starfire’s niche complex can’t compete with heated fields in New York, indoor-outdoor exercise weight rooms in Los Angeles and all-in-one complexes that include soccer-specific stadiums and training grounds in St. Louis and Miami. Restrictions to maintain the nonprofit aspect of Starfire also led to the Sounders’ departure.

Longacres will house the business and soccer operations of the club. Among the touted features are four full-sized training pitches, including a massive grass field. But the space doesn’t have public access.

The Sounders plan to have events catered to fans and kids at Longacres to keep some connection outside of matches. And U.S. Open matches could still be held at Starfire Stadium.

Starfire isn’t losing all its sports celebrity cachet. The Seattle Reign made Starfire their home training ground in 2023 and will take over the Sounders footprint this season.

Once the club’s new ownership is in place, decisions will be finalized on how the Reign’s branding will mark the area and other changes to the locker room and offices spaces. But kids’ eyes widening at the sight of star soccer players walking by their field will remain.

“It’s been a good home for us,” Schmetzer said of Starfire. “Sometimes it got a little overwhelming for the players, but I loved that we had to walk through fans, and the fans were able to [ask for] autograph balls and moms and dads were taking photos of the kids. I loved that. I’ll miss that. I understand we’ve got some high-priced players and security and some of those types of issues are happening with the growth of our sport, but at the end of the day, Starfire has been a great home for us … Good memories. Real good memories.”

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