By John Boyle Herald Writer
TUKWILA — After a weekend off, the Sounders will head to Philadelphia this weekend as close to full strength as they’ve been all season.
And while that’s good news for a team trying to climb out of last place in the West, it could be bad news for players who have to battle for every opportunity to get on the field.
Players who aren’t part of the usual starting lineup. Players like Lamar Neagle.
Then again, the way Neagle has been playing of late, Sounders coach Sigi Schmid might have to find a way to get the Federal Way native on the field even as his team returns some of its top attacking options.
When Neagle was traded from Montreal to Seattle in the offseason, it was good news that he got a chance to return home and be close to family and friends.
A return home, however, also came with the reality for Neagle that he might not see the field a lot early in the season on a team that has so many talented options on the wing like Steve Zakuani, Mauro Rosales and Mario Martinez. The team also signed Obafemi Martins as a designated player to pair at forward with Eddie Johnson, who last year set a franchise record with 14 goals.
But because of injuries and a schedule that included some extra games in CONCACAF Champions League play, Neagle got his chance to make an impact when he came in as a sub in a Champions League semifinal against Santos Laguna. Neagle scored in that game, then earned starts in Seattle’s last two league games as a forward because of various injuries that have limited both Johnson and Martins.
Despite being a bit out of position — Neagle has spent most of his career playing as a winger — he has been one of the best players on the field in Seattle’s last two games.
“It’s great,” Neagle said of his increased role on the team. “I wasn’t planning on coming and starting this early, and definitely not playing forward, but I’m just taking it as it comes and growing in my confidence.”
Neagle’s strong play could force Schmid to make some tough decisions this week and beyond. Sure injuries and busy stretches of the schedule will require Seattle to test its depth at times during the season, but what’s a coach to do when he has everyone available and one of his reserves is forcing his hand with impressive play? That, of course, is a problem any coach would welcome.
“It’s great on a team when players make the coaches’ jobs hard, because that means there’s competition and guys are pushing each other to try and get on the field,” Schmid said.
Neagle is now in his third stint with Seattle, having signed with the Sounders as a rookie in 2009 before playing with the Charleston Battery of the USL, then rejoined Seattle in 2011, only to be traded to Montreal last year in part of the deal that brought Johnson to Seattle.
He’s been a bench player with the Sounders, but has also had huge moments, including a hat trick in Columbus in 2011. He’s playing well recently and knows he has to focus on taking care of business, not on looking over his shoulder to see if he’s going to lose playing time now that the team is healthier.
“I can’t really worry about that,” he said. “All I can control is how I play. The coaches have tough decisions every week, and I can’t really do anything about it. If I’m in, I’m happy, if I’m not, I know the other guys will do those things.
“Whenever you’re not playing — we’re all competitive, we all want to be out there playing — so when you’re not, it can get a little frustrating at times, but I’ve been through it before, you just have to wait, and when you get your chance, make the most of it.”
So far, Neagle has certainly made the most of his opportunities. But if he wants to keep playing, he’ll not only need to continue to shine on game day, but become a more consistent player in practice.
“I think with Lamar, he’s always been a better game player than he’s been necessarily a training player,” Schmid said. “But he’s got to put away chances at training so that it translates to putting away chances in games. If he starts putting away chances, then he’ll have shown himself to be a very able guy who can play up front for us.”
Obviously being better on game day than in practice is better than being a practice all-star who disappears on game day, but even so, Neagle knows that more consistency in practice will help him in the long run.
“It’s just something I need to work on,” he said. “That will obviously help me in games if I’m more consistent in practice. That’s something I have in the back of my head every practice to get better and better, but it’s not something I want to dwell on and be negative about.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.