Sounders’ Pappa has rejuvenated his game

TUKWILA— The Seattle Sounders’ game today against Chicago had the potential to be an awkward homecoming for Marco Pappa.

Back in late March and early April, Pappa, who only a few years ago was an All-Star midfielder for the Chicago Fire, was riding the bench for the Sounders. He struggled early this season in his return to Major League Soccer after an unsuccessful stint in Europe, and after starting Seattle’s first two games, he found himself out of the starting lineup four consecutive games.

So today’s game in Chicago had the potential to serve as the ultimate reminder for Pappa of just how much his career has changed since he left the Fire in 2012 to play for Dutch club SC Heerenveen. Had this season continued the way it started for Pappa, he’d be returning to Chicago to likely sit on the bench and maybe come on as a late-game substitute in a stadium where he was once the team’s leading scorer.

Instead, Pappa has turned things around in a big way with his new club and now returns to Chicago looking a lot like the player who made a name for himself with the Fire for five seasons before trying his luck in Europe.

When Pappa joined Heerenveen, it didn’t go at all as he had hoped. He barely played, causing him to lose both his confidence and game fitness, and it showed early on with Seattle. Pappa did start Seattle’s first two games, but in that second game, he played a perfectly weighted through ball to Jermain Defoe to set up a goal. One slight problem, however, was that Defoe plays for Toronto FC, and that errant back pass, along with other inconsistent play, landed Pappa on the bench.

Since those early struggles, Pappa has regained the trust of Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, worked his way back into the starting lineup, and after starting five consecutive games at left midfield, he now is becoming one of Seattle’s most important attacking players, especially with Clint Dempsey away on national team duty. Last weekend, Pappa put an exclamation mark on his run of strong play with a beauty of a free kick goal in Seattle’s 4-0 win over Real Salt Lake.

“Maybe to be in Europe was not the best option for me, the best decision,” Pappa said. “… That’s why I came back to MLS. I broke my contract to come back to MLS, and in the beginning it was a little bit slow, but it’s getting better and better, and I’m happy with that. It feels good to start feeling this confidence and start feeling like you can show your skills.”

Schmid has certainly noticed the improvement in Pappa since those rough early season games. And that’s very good news for the Sounders, who in a very busy offseason made Pappa one of their biggest additions, using their top spot in the allocation order — the league’s mechanism for assigning the rights to former MLS players returning to the league. The Sounders had the depth to play, and succeed, with Pappa on the bench for a stretch of the season, but they’re a better team with him on the field playing the way he has for the past few games.

“His confidence is coming,” Schmid said. “It always takes you a little bit when you go into a situation like he went into in Holland where there was a period of time when he didn’t play, when he didn’t have the confidence of the coach. You lose a little bit of faith and confidence in yourself.

“Always to be a good player you need a little bit of swagger. At the start here, it started off a little bit slowly, he wasn’t sure if he had my confidence at the beginning. I think now he realizes he does, and I can see that swagger back in his step a little bit.”

So it is with that renewed swagger that Pappa will return to Chicago to face his former team, something he admits will be a little strange, but something that he’s also looking forward to considering how important the team and city were to his career.

“Chicago was a big part of my career, for sure,” said Pappa, who joined the Fire in 2008 as a 20-year-old. “It means a lot of things, I have family and friends there, but at the end of the day it’s about business. Now I’m playing for the Sounders, and I will do my best for them.

“It’s going to be a special game, but at the end of the day it’s about business.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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