By Don Ruiz The News Tribune
There was an unlikely South King County convergence Saturday when Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid substituted Sean Okoli for Lamar Neagle.
Both are from Federal Way: a city of just over 90,000 people, two of whom played their way onto the Sounders’ 18-man game-day roster.
“(The fans) started chatting ‘2-5-3,’” Neagle said, noting the Federal Way area code. “I didn’t know if it was for me or him. It’s amazing. … We actually both went to (Federal Way’s Todd Beamer High School) — I went there for a semester.”
Neagle is in his fifth Major League Soccer season and made his 48th career start Saturday. And when he left the pitch in the 86th minute, it made way for Okoli’s professional debut.
“When I came in, the coaches told me to do the best I can and get behind the defense and try to make an impact,” Okoli said.
He did as he was told. In the fourth minute of stoppage time, Okoli made a key pass in the possession that led to a goal by Chad Barrett and a 1-0 Sounders’ win against defending MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City.
“I just tried to get the ball at my feet and get a couple of touches in,” Okoli said. “On the counter, Clint (Dempsey) found me on the far side, and I just whipped the ball in. It was a mosh pit in there, so it was good to see our guys get on the end of it.”
It was quite an introduction for the 21-year-old who on Jan. 8 signed on as a homegrown player after amateur success in the Sounders Academy, with the Pierce Country-based Sounders U-23 and with Wake Forest University in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Okoli (pronounced oh-COE-lee) and midfielder Aaron Kovar of Seattle became the second and third homegrown Sounders, following the path blazed last season by starting right back DeAndre Yedlin.
“It was a proud moment; not just for him, but for me, too,” Yedlin said. “It’s crazy being reunited with him, and I couldn’t help but smile when he was coming on the field because I know what that’s like to come and play for the first time. I’m sure it was an amazing feeling for him.”
Yedlin immediately moved into the Sounders’ starting lineup last season, blossomed into one of the top rookies in the league, and received his first international cap this winter.
The Sounders said they didn’t expect that kind of breakthrough to be repeated by either Okoli or Kovar. However, Okoli was impressive enough during preseason to be included on the season-opening 18, to be used as one of the three substitutes, and to contribute to the game’s lone goal.
“He has been improving all preseason,” Schmid said. “We knew he had some speed that could give (SKC defender Josh Gardner) problems: That’s why I wanted him on the right. He played as a forward at Wake Forest, so he’s learning a little more how to play wide. You’re not old or young; you’re either a good player or a bad a player.”
The Sounders return to training today, beginning preparations for their next MLS match at 1:30 p.m. Saturday when Toronto FC visits CenturyLink Field.