BY Stanley Holmes 06:16PM 04/11/2011

Dual strikes elevate White’s confidence

Sounders forward O’Brian White has turned self-belief into points

Forward O'Brian White is feeling the confidence -- scoring his second goal in as many games. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Confidence is everything for a striker.

The Sounders are beginning to see how confidence is instrumental to the success of perhaps the most challenging position in soccer. O’Brian White on Saturday against the Chicago Fire demonstrated just how devastating, just how damaging, just how effective a confident striker can be.

He ripped up Chicago’s defense in the first half. The Sounders swarmed the Fire’s side of the half in the opening minutes. White’s aggressive runs off the ball, his pressuring and chasing defenders, his ability to hold the ball and make incisive passes to his teammates put the Fire defense on its heels.

His hard work and smart play culminated in a snap-header in the seventh minute of the match to put Seattle ahead. He received a near-perfect bending ball from forward Mauro Rosales who was pushing the ball down the right flank. White backed up and positioned himself between two defenders as he moved into the Fire’s 18-yard box and zeroed in on Rosales’ aerial delivery. At the perfect moment, he out-jumped his two defenders and then snapped the ball into the upper right corner of the net.

It was a superlative example of power and finesse executed by a striker who appears to be gaining confidence every day. The beauty of his second goal in as many games — and the final pass — has been nominated as MLS Goal of the Week.

“We wanted O’Brian White to stay up top and in the first half he did a great job,” Sounders FC Coach Sigi Schmid said. “When you look at when they were attacking, there was always two guys back marking O’Brian White. If he can tie up two guys, that’s a huge benefit to us.”

The first goal only served to fuel his confidence. Even though Chicago tied the game almost immediately, it didn’t derail White. The promising young striker –  and 2008 MAC Hermann Trophy Winner who scored 23 goals in 24 games as a junior at University of Connecticut — was too hungry to let Chicago’s startling response slow him down.

At the 25th minute, Steve Zakuani received a pass from Osvaldo Alonso near the left touch line. Immediately two Chicago players converged on the fleet-footed winger. At the same time, an alert White checked to Zakuani, pulling one defender with him. Zakuani split the defenders with a short square pass that White one-touched with the outside of his right foot to a streaking Zakuani.

The pass was perfectly weighted and that allowed Zakuani to beat his defender to the near post and slot the ball underneath the goalie for the go-ahead score.

“The 1-2 he hit with Zakuani was great,” Schmid said. “In the preseason, I said that we’re going to find some joy once he finds his confidence and he has two goals now in last two games and has an assist.”

These are very encouraging and positive signs for the quiet-spoken Jamaican. The season remains long and it’s still too early to judge either way about the ultimate value White will bring to the Sounders. But nobody can dispute his heart, desire or work rate. Goals speak volumes.

The former Toronto FC first-round draft pick came to Seattle via a trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps who had selected him in the 2011 MLS Expansion Draft. Despite the club’s positive spin on the striker, White arrived with more questions than answers. Whispers from Canada dismissed White’s ability to finish. Some critics had tagged him as enormous unfulfilled potential who had failed to match his brilliant college scoring record.

A serious knee injury didn’t help. Following a fantastic junior year at UConn, where Soccer America also named him Player of the Year, White tore his Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL). That cut his senior season to 14 games, six goals and two assists.

Nevertheless, his reputation landed him as the fourth overall pick in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft. But Toronto didn’t fare so well for the former U-20 Jamaican National Team player. He scored just four times in his first two seasons with Toronto FC.

The first half of his rookie season was spent recovering and rehabilitating his knee. When he finally took to the pitch, he failed to impress. Doubts surfaced whether White could become as dangerous in the MLS as he had been in college.

The 25-year-old is starting to answer the doubters and repay Schmid’s faith. Even though he didn’t notch his first goal until last week at San Jose, it wasn’t for lack of trying. He had been agonizingly close in nearly every match — particularly against the LA Galaxy. He has already taken 10 shots on goal, exceeding his eight shots in 2010. He now has two goals and one assist over five games.

White is giving himself a brief moment to bask in the glow of a well-earned victory in a match that relied on a significant contribution from him. It’s what all forwards want besides burying the ball into the net — to feel wanted and needed.

“Definitely feels good to get the first win,” White said, following the match. “We’ve come close a couple times in previous games and didn’t get the three points, but today we finally got it. It feels great. It just gives us more motivation going forward.”

White, though, faces other motivation. Because the Sounders’ offense has been sputtering early in the season, he needed to produce some goals or it would be a spell on the bench. Schmid had become under increasing pressure to deliver the club’s first win — and he needed his forwards to start scoring.

With Fredy Montero out with a fractured wrist, the burden of scoring fell on White’s shoulders. He knows others are waiting if he can’t produce.

“He knows that Nate’s (Jaqua) about ready to go and if that’s motivating him, that’s fine,” Schmid said. “I thought (White) played well. He took a pretty good knock in the ankle and that really started to bother him in the second half.

“That was one of the reasons we had to change him,” Schmid said. “I thought he had a very, very good first 45 minutes.”

Schmid is aware of how fragile it can be for a forward. So much is based on confidence and a strong, almost cocky mentality. White, who stands 6-1, is a shy and quiet personality off the field. In many ways, his personality is the opposite of swagger and cockiness–a typical personality trait for most strikers — successful or otherwise.

When White joined the Sounders, Schmid had instructed his veterans to pay close attention to him and shower him with positive support. He intuitively knew that if White were to succeed and beat the criticism he would need a strong support structure.

He got it, said Brad Evans, and now OB is returning the love.

“Sigi said this is a guy you need to take under your wing and give him as much positive energy as you can because that’s what he’s going to feed off,” Evans recalled. “And I think you’ve seen that. It’s been nothing but positive from him.

“Nobody has ever gotten down on him. That’s for sure,” Evans said. “He puts in the work. It’s constant encouragement. He’s a quiet dude. That’s his thing. But on the field, he fights for the ball. He’s scored two unbelievable headers for us. That’s pure battling.”

Though White might be quiet he’s also a determined and quietly confident. He knows he’s been welcomed warmly and supported in Seattle — particularly by his teammates. He also knows the season is a long one — with many ups and downs. Getting to better know his teammates is rubbing off.

“The more you play, the more you get to figure out players,” White said. “I just think it’s a work in progress but it’s been good. Just keep working and work off of each other and success will follow.”


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