By TJ Cotterill The News Tribune
The Seattle Sounders are seeing a different Lamar Neagle this season.
Neagle’s road to Major League Soccer from his days as an all-area player at Thomas Jefferson High School in Auburn is littered with stints on the bench, a few uniforms and inconsistent playing time.
But opportunity came calling when the U.S. national team claimed Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans, and the Honduras team took Mario Martinez for most of the past month. Neagle stepped into the starting lineup.
The seldom-used role player now is tied for the team lead with four goals and three assists — all in his past five matches.
“Chances have been so few and far between in previous years, and that has made it tough to get on a roll when you don’t get (consistent) minutes,” said Neagle, 26, in his fifth professional season and third stint with the Sounders. “You kind of worry as you go along if you are ever going to get your shot. But I just kept plugging along, and it eventually just kind of happened for me.”
Neagle entered the season with seven goals and four assists in 46 MLS appearances. He already has improved on last season, when he recorded two goals and two assists in 23 appearances with the Montreal Impact. He was traded to Montreal before the season in a deal that brought Johnson to Seattle.
The trade came after Neagle’s promising 2011 campaign with the Sounders when he had five goals in nine starts. But he struggled in Montreal, saying the trade shook his confidence.
“That (2011) was the year when I knew I could play in this league,” Neagle said. “I was trying to build on that, but then being traded to a new team and not getting the minutes that I thought I was going to get was definitely disheartening. It dropped me down a couple pegs.”
Montreal traded him back to the Sounders in January. Neagle has started in seven of his past eight matches, including the Sounders’ 3-2 win against the Vancouver Whitecaps on June 8, when he scored the winning goal.
“He is not just scoring and making plays for the team, but also helping everybody defensively,” midfielder Mauro Rosales said. “He is doing an excellent job taking his opportunity, and now he is one of the guys playing more for us.
“I’ve known him from the moment that I come here, and to tell you the truth, I’m not surprised he is doing this kind of stuff right now, doing his best now and having a good time. I can see him doing this every day for us.”
But soon, Neagle’s groove might be thwarted.
Johnson and Evans helped the U.S. team beat Martinez’s Honduras squad, 1-0, in a World Cup qualifier Tuesday, and all three returned to the team Wednesday — just as Neagle and forward Obafemi Martins have started to develop chemistry up front.
Neagle is tied with Johnson for the team lead in goals and has one more assist than Evans — despite making one fewer start than both.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “But he is also putting a lot of energy into the game. He’s been very beneficial to us with the amount of sprints that he makes, creating havoc for the opposing defense.”
With the return of Johnson, Evans and Martinez, the Sounders’ lineup will undergo an overhaul. Schmid guaranteed he would find a place for Neagle, though he wasn’t specific on where.
Even with that vote of confidence, Neagle knows his minutes might become less consistent.
“It’s a definite possibility,” Neagle said. “But right now I feel like a guy who is being focused on, and with Eddie and Martinez back, they are going to be focused on. If teams lapse on all three of us, we are going to punish them for that, so it may actually work out for the best.
“Right now, I’m doing well, and when that happens, (the coaches) are good at rewarding people for it. So I should be on the field.”
That is all Neagle has wanted.
“For me, it’s about knowing that I can play against anyone in the league and that I can do well against them — that’s my mentality,” Neagle said. “It’s a bit changed from times when I questioned myself when I wasn’t playing a lot or got kinda nervous whenever I did get the chance.”
“Now I’m just trying to make the most of it.”