Seattle Sounders’ Mr. Intensity: Andrew Thomas Pens New Chapter in Starfire Cup Lore

Andrew Thomas – understudy to Sounders goalkeeping legend Stefan Frei – is making his high-octane mark in the 2024 Open Cup for the four-time tournament champions.
By: Jonah Fontela
sounders goalkeeper in black and red jersey high fives kids in crowd after a match
sounders goalkeeper in black and red jersey high fives kids in crowd after a match

“The Red Card Wedding, Marcus Hahhneman chugging a beer – the legend of Starfire and the Open Cup goes way, way back,” smiled Andrew Thomas, the young Seattle Sounders goalkeeper who’s penning his own chapter in the little stadium’s big legend.

For those not aware, we’ll clarify. The Red Card Wedding was a Fourth Rounder in 2015 against archrivals Portland Timbers, famous for a frenzy of cards that culminated in Clint Dempsey ripping up the ref’s notebook in an infamous act of dissent that earned the USMNT legend a two-year ban from the Open Cup. Marcus Hahnemann Chugging a Beer is exactly what it sounds like – the beloved goalkeeper, in his last season for his hometown club, was inspired against those same Timbers and, after the game, made an even trade of his game jersey for a fan’s full pint of beer. And down it went after a salute to the crowd.

Starfire, that’s the 4000-seat stadium where the Sounders, four-time winners of our Cup, play their early round games each year. It’s south of the city, on the banks of the Green River in Tukwila, Washington. Its thickets of Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pine and the ground’s cozy dimensions, in inverse proportions to the club’s usual home of Lumen Field that can hold 70,000, combine to make a kind of Cup Magic Potion.

“It’s a small field,” added the 25-year-old Thomas, who looks a little like Robin Hood with slicked blonde locks and trimmed mustache, and who plays with the kind of high-volume intensity well suited to the knockout chaos of the Open Cup. “You always know it’s going to be hectic here – it’s just a few thousand fans, but you can really feel them. They let you know they’re there.”

Starfire Struggles & Glories in 2024

The energy at Starfire-Sounders games is special. The fans who make the trip down I-5 aren’t tourists, or your day-trip picnickers. They’re the hard-liners – the ones who honor the history of a club born long ago among the flared sideburns and no-shinguard abandon of the NASL of the 1970s.

Before a move to MLS in 2009, humble Starfire was the Sounders’ home when they played in the Division II USL Championship. And it’s against teams from that very league that the two-time MLS Champions have been battling in the Open Cup this year.

“You can always expect crazy games, with high adrenaline and excitement,” said Thomas, who was the hero in a tense test against Louisville City in the Round of 32. After conceding what he calls a “deflating, frustrating” 89th minute equalizer, the game ended 2-2 through extra-time before heading to a shootout. The goalkeeper, still young and still fighting for his future in the U.S. top-flight, stepped into the spotlight.

He saved two penalties before putting the result on his shoulders by taking the eighth (and decisive) spot kick.

“I was just looking over to the bench around the fourth kick and they were kind of suggesting that I should take one of the next ones,” he said of the moments leading up to his winning shot – low and hard and virtually unstoppable. “And I was just like OK, let’s do this. I had the adrenaline of just making the save and I was ready, eager to have the chance and to end the game myself.”

The celebrations that followed will be filed away with all those other magic Starfire moments. “The energy was high at the end, the euphoria, the scramble – it’s the Cup so you only have one shot at it,” he said, summing up the frenzy and jeopardy that makes Open Cup games so special. “I’m so thrilled to have been able to do my part in creating that atmosphere – adding a little to that fantastic moment.”

In the next round, also at Starfire, Thomas wasn’t the one at the heart of the last-second heroics – but they were needed again. Against last year’s USL Championship toppers Phoenix Rising, an 88th-minute winner (2-1) from Kalani Kossa-Rienzi was followed by a tumbling back-flip celebration, caught perfectly by the Sounders photo team, that will also live on as part of Starfire lore.

Thomas is the kind of goalkeeper who’ll applaud his wall for standing tall. And despite not having the busiest day against Rising (called on to make just one save) he’s never short of things to say out on the field. He’s a cajoler and a motivator – with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Born in Moscow in 1998, he was raised in England and bounced around the U.S. lower leagues after a college career at Stanford.

And now with the Sounders, Thomas finds himself at the end of a long line of some of this country’s best goalkeepers – Hahhneman and Kasey Keller chief among them. As Thomas gets a rare education as understudy to a club and MLS legend (and current No1) Stefan Frei, it’s a case of Mr. Intensity meeting who he calls “Mr. Consistency”.

“I’m so lucky to have feedback from him – he always chimes in during training and offers advice,” said Thomas of working with Frei. “At the end of the day we’re all fighting for the same spot, but we're a tight group but I’m learning so much from him and it’s just invaluable.”

soccer field with a net and a large pine tree forest behind it
soccer field with a net and a large pine tree forest behind it
Starfire Stadium in all its piney glory

Frei is a legend by any measure. He has over 400 starts and two MLS Cups from his decade at the Sounders. But the only remaining member of the 2014 Open Cup-winning team is also 38, and the question of who will be his successor is an open one. Thomas – tapped as the Open Cup keeper this year and logging minutes in league play – looks to have the inside track on Jacob Castro in the race for long-time coach Brian Schmetzer’s No1 shirt.

It’s amid the Cup fires and perils where Thomas has shown his essential nature – as a competitor and a man hungry for more everything. “There’s a kind of desperation to these Cup games,” he said, half a smile emerging. “You find yourself losing and maybe there’s a handful of minutes left and you’ve got to solve the problem. And if you do, there’s euphoria. But there’s no hiding.”

fans in the stands waving flags
fans in the stands waving flags
The fans at Starfire make sure they make themselves heard

“The energy of those moments is something a little stronger,” said the goalkeeper ahead of a first road test in this year’s Open Cup on July 9th. “You only get one shot at it.”

Sacramento Challenge on the Road

Becoming a hero in the early stages of an Open Cup is one thing. Winning the whole damn thing is another. Thomas knows the importance of this trophy at this club. “You can’t get too far ahead of yourself in knockout play,” he said, eager to pull the reins and respect all opponents ahead. “But the success of the club in this competition in the past is something you have to try to live up to here.

“Every day we walk past a plaque next to the boot room with the images of Open Cup successes – and the four stars the club has won,” he said. “You have to want to add another star to that.

Up next is another test against the cream of the USL Championship. A Quarterfinal against Sacramento Republic, who reached the Open Cup Final in 2022, will be played on the road in California's capital. So Thomas and Co. won’t have the comforts and beating drums of Starfire, nor the mystery of its dense pines. But they will have the memory of all the magic made there.

“Open Cup games are always exciting,” he said, with a place in the Semifinals on the line. “This a tournament that we take very seriously here and we’ll give it everything we have.”

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at@jonahfontela on X/Twitter.