Winter is here and the Seattle Sounders’ season is now over. While some soccer fans turn their attention to the European leagues to watch games, many fans here in the South Sound turn their attention indoors, yet toward the stars. More specifically, the Tacoma Stars of the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL).
The team plays during the Sounders’ off-season, during the fall and winter months. Their games are played in ShoWare Center in Kent.
“We have a very local flare in our group,” explained Darren Sawatzky, the Stars’ head coach and general manager. The majority of the team’s roster is made up of players who are from the area. “You’ll see Tacoma, Federal Way, Puyallup against half the names on our roster. This keeps us very local and tied to our community.”
The kind of soccer the Stars play is a bit different from the kind of soccer the Sounders play. Indoor soccer is played on a field about the size of a hockey rink. It’s a faster game than outdoor soccer, with the ball bouncing off of side boards instead of going out of bounds. Unlike outdoor soccer, indoor soccer is a high scoring game, with some matches going into the double digits.
The roots of the Tacoma Stars date back to 1983, when the team was part of the now defunct Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL). That version of the team played until 1992, when the league folded. It played all of its games in the Tacoma Dome.
“We’d love to one day play in Dome again, but right now it’s just cost prohibitive.”
In 2003, the team was resurrected and played in both amateur and semi-pro leagues. Unlike other teams that were later resurrected, the Stars did not go through a rebranding, nor did it change its logo. The colors and design of the uniforms are practically identical to ones the original team wore during the glory days.
The original MISL was famous, or infamous, for the in-game entertainment. Some teams were brought into the arena on motorcycles. The Missouri Comets team came out of a spaceship that was lowered from the rafters. While these extravagant displays don’t feature in the modern MASL games, the Stars make sure their fans are entertained. Games at the ShoWare Center are filled with music, dancing and chants lead by a group of hardcore supporters, nicknamed The Satellites.
“It’s exciting and fun! It keeps fans engaged. When our games are over, we invite the entire crowd onto the field. If you’re a Stars fan, you can meet the coaches, the players, you can meet everybody.”
The coach, who’s a native of Federal Way, grew up with a deep love and passion for the game of soccer. He played professionally as a journeyman, never really settling with one team. He had stints with some Major League Soccer franchises, including, among others, the New England Revolution, the Portland Timbers F.C. and the Seattle Sounders F.C. He also played for teams in South Korea and even had trials with Leicester City F.C. in England and Club de Futbol Universidad Nacional A.C., more commonly known as Pumas, in Mexico. When his playing career ended, he turned his attention and energy to coaching.
In 2007, Sawatzky was hired by the Sounders to help run its academy system. While there, he coached local kids who dreamed of one day playing at the highest level of the game. He helped future U.S. Men’s National Team standouts Jordan Morris and DeAndre Yedlin hone their skills and stand out. Sawatzky joined the Tacoma Stars in 2015 and set out building a roster filled with homegrown talent.
“For one reason or another, after I left the Sounders, they decided to look for their players elsewhere. Well, that’s given us a niche! You know, you have guys like [midfielder] Troy Peterson, who could easily start and play for [the Sounders reserve team] S2. They chose to go a different route, but it’s to our benefit.”
With a team made up of local faces on the field, the games have a neighborly and family-oriented feel to them. Prices for tickets start at $9 and all of the fans are considered friends.
“We don’t want to be detached and withdrawn from our fanbase,” Sawatzky explains.
The Stars owner, businessman Lane Smith, shares the head coach’s passion for soccer. He is one of the lease holders and benefactors of the Tacoma Soccer Center, which helps bring the game to youth in organized and recreational play. The Center operates several leagues for children and adults. Some players for the Stars got their start through the Tacoma Soccer Center.
“We want to continue to be the neighborhood team,” Sawatzky said. “I’ve played or coached in just about every level in the United States. The sport is just growing in popularity by leaps and bounds and we’re part of that.”