Time for Sounders’ Ochoa to step up

Sammy Ochoa has shown his Seattle Sounders coaches and teammates a couple of different things in a little less than a year with the team.

Since joining Seattle last August, Ochoa has at times shown a knack for finishing around the goal that is one of soccer’s rarest and most sought-after commodities. On other occasions, he has made Sounders coach Sigi Schmid wonder about the forward’s work ethic.

“He’s a penalty-box forward, he’s the kind of guy that looks for those little openings, little opportunities, and he’s pretty good at finishing when he gets them,” Schmid said. “But there are other times where you scratch your head a little bit and say, ‘Is he doing enough, is he working enough, (doing) the other things that you need at that moment?’ But he’s definitely shown an ability to finish, he’s always had that.”

And while Ochoa’s game has been inconsistent since he came to the team from Mexico’s Primera Division last summer, what has been completely unambiguous about the 25-year-old’s time in Seattle is that he has earned far less playing time than he or his coaches would have liked.

That is almost certainly about to change. Whether it is tonight against Kansas City, Sunday in Portland or sometime next week, Ochoa should see his playing time increase pretty significantly. After a slow start in preseason workouts, which was compounded by the birth of his second child in February, Ochoa has shown signs of improvement as the year has gone on. He has been productive in reserve league games, and he had a pair of goals in a U.S. Open Cup win over the Atlanta Silverbacks.

So, Ochoa was probably going to find his way onto the field more often soon based simply on merit, but his role also will increase now because of a broken foot suffered by David Estrada in training last week. Estrada, the team’s leading scorer with five goals, is expected to miss eight to 12 weeks, and while Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson are still Seattle’s top choices at forward, Ochoa will be needed because of the team’s busy upcoming schedule. Last week’s game in Montreal was the beginning of a stretch of seven games in 22 days for Seattle.

“He’s worked and he’s gotten himself fitter,” Schmid said. “You saw him with the two goals he had against Atlanta in the Open Cup. He’s going to play some key minutes for us as the games start piling up here.”

When Seattle signed Ochoa last summer, the hope was he might be the permanent answer up front to pair with Montero. He showed signs that he might be that player, scoring twice in four games late in the year, but his fitness level coming into the season concerned the team, so much so that Schmid admitted the trade to acquire Johnson might not have happened had Ochoa been in better shape.

With Johnson on board and Estrada breaking out after two quiet seasons, Ochoa became the odd man out in Seattle’s forward rotation. Like any top-level athlete, he believes in his ability and thinks he could help the team given more opportunities. However, Ochoa isn’t one to make a fuss over a lack of playing time.

“The times I’ve played, I think I’ve done well, but our forwards are scoring, and when the forwards are scoring, it’s hard to sit them,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep working. … I’m ready. I’ve been ready, but Estrada was playing good and all the forwards are playing good. I don’t want the opportunity to come like this, but we’ve got to deal with it and move forward, so we’ll just try to do the best we can while he’s out.

“I’m there for the coaches if they ask for me to come on. But either way, I’ve just got to keep working.”

Ochoa has played just 53 minutes in three league games this season, the fewest of any Sounders player who has seen the field. That isn’t what he was hoping for heading into the season, but thanks to improved play, as well as an unfortunate injury, it should change soon.

“My opportunity is going to come,” he said. “I’ve just got to wait for it, and when it comes, take advantage with it.”

Ochoa’s opportunity is indeed coming soon, if not tonight, then certainly in the next few games, and when it does, Schmid hopes he’ll be spending less time scratching his head, and more time celebrating the forward’s goal-scoring abilities.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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