Tukwila's Starfire Sports soccer complex gleams with promise. Emerald-green, all-weather fields sprawl over parts of 54 acres. The main field features...

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TUKWILA’S STARFIRE SPORTS soccer complex gleams with promise.

Emerald-green, all-weather fields sprawl over parts of 54 acres. The main field features covered 2,000-seat grandstands and a state-of-the-art press box. Its 80,000-square-feet indoor athletic center, which should be completed by spring, has two fields, a weight room, arcade games and places to learn, devise strategy, get physical therapy and even, eventually, lunch or a beer.

The $10 million site is the largest artificial-surface soccer complex in the U.S.

When I recently toured the facility with co-founder and CEO Chris Slatt, I couldn’t help but think about how my 10-year-old daughter and her teammates hydroplane through the massive mud puddles on Green Lake fields. As I listened to the booming echoes of kicks from a team’s practice, I wondered about disadvantaged kids, whose participation in sports, especially soccer, lags. When my head began filling with the facts and figures and possibilities of a place like this, I wondered how it could help make a dent in the relentlessly depressing news on youth obesity.

Slatt thinks about those things, too.

“What we’re trying to do is a unique model,” he says. “A world-class facility that is not exclusive to just the well-off and world-class athletes.”

Part of the project’s mission is to get underprivileged Northwest kids involved in sports, teamwork and purpose by offering top facilities and training. By charging teams and players who can afford it, Starfire offers scholarships and free use to those who can’t. Leveling a bit, so to speak, the playing field.

Seattle SCORES, an after-school program for low-income kids, was one of Starfire’s first calls.

“The kids in our program represent 30 different languages,” says SCORES executive director Julie Cain. “And soccer is a huge part of their families’ lives, but very few get to play on an organized team. When I asked our kids who was on an organized team, only three raised their hands.”

Students in the SCORES program play and learn fundamentals of the sport at the site. Adidas has provided the students with jerseys, shorts, socks, shin guards and balls. Starfire also helps train SCORES soccer coaches and has provided scholarships for children to participate in their training sessions, Cain says.

She says the number of kids from Tukwila, South Seattle and White Center helped through the SCORES and Starfire partnership will grow by 50 percent next year and reach 650 at-risk children by 2007.

More than 10 percent of the kids attending last summer’s Manchester United Soccer Schools camp at the facility were on scholarship through the Highline YMCA. That program went so well that Nike and Manchester United are establishing a permanent soccer school at Starfire Sports. It will be the first Manchester United Soccer School in the United States, and fourth in the world.

Regular and long-term soccer participation improves the health of boys, according to new research published by the American College of Sports Medicine. The study, which measured anaerobic and aerobic power, speed and lean and bone mass, showed those participating in routine extracurricular sports achieved far greater benefits than those who only participated in physical education at school.

Starfire has already attracted top athletes, including 2000 Olympic silver-medalist Michelle French, to work with the kids and show them how to stay fit, both physically and mentally.

Slatt, founder and former chairman and CEO of Seattle-based WatchGuard Technologies, Inc., was inspired to pursue the Starfire dream, along with Mark Bickham and Steve Beck, because of the effect that sports, specifically soccer, had on his two daughters.

Slatt moved fast in the spring of 2002 when he learned Fort Dent Park, not far from where Interstates 5 and 405 meet, would close because of budget cuts. He worked with the city and King County, and rapidly obtained a 40-year lease.

The founders of the nonprofit foundation have forged partnerships with corporations, government, local, pro and international teams and associations. Soon, the site was populated by 11 soccer fields and four softball fields.

A few grass soccer fields are maintained for free public use, and four softball fields will be renovated soon. Starfire (www.starfiresports.com) is already getting good use. Practices and games run through the week, and about 400,000 players and spectators will pass through the complex this year.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at rseven@seattletimes.com.