In a make-or-break Champions League match, the Sounders used a mixture of experienced defenders and midfield depth to beat a young Whitecaps side and advance.
Lamar Neagle picked up a brace of goals and Nelson Valdez notched a goal and two assists as the Sounders ran a depleted Whitecaps squad ragged Wednesday night at the Clink. The 3-0 victory in Seattle’s final CONCACAF Champions League group match earned the team a spot in the tournament’s quarterfinals.
Neagle’s two goals were the turnaround of a frustrating season for him. The midfielder from Federal Way had not scored in 583 minutes of play since he equalized against the Whitecaps in the Champions League Aug. 5. His goal there, too, broke a long-running scoring drought for the entire team. After that, a poor run of form culminated in his exclusion from the 18-man roster in Saturday’s MLS match in Vancouver.
Wednesday’s performance showed the same spark and pluck that earned him nine goals, nine assists, and a three-year contract last season. Neagle appeared in every game for Seattle so far this season before being benched. Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said that the week off was good for Neagle.
“It helps him,” said Schmid. “We’ve sort of put the mantle on him; because of the injuries that we’ve had, he’s played too many minutes. I think his legs were a little bit fresher. I think also (his) mentality is a little fresher. Sometimes the bench is also a good motivator.”
Motivation was evident. Neagle cashed it in the 32nd minute, when Chad Barrett rolled a cross inside the penalty box and the midfielder flashed past a defender to fan the ball into the far side of the net.
His second goal came two minutes into the second half, when Barrett found Neagle in a fifteen-yard wide gap in the backline and played him into a one-on-one with Vancouver goalie Paolo Tornaghi. Neagle lifted the ball with his right foot, pushing it past Tornaghi’s outstretched arms to make it 3-0.
Neagle gave credit to the players around him for his success.
“Barrett played me a great ball, the first and the second goal,” said Neagle. “It’s nice to get two, especially in a game this important.”
With the elevated stakes on their final group stage match, Schmid elected to start five players who started in Seattle’s 3-0 league victory of Vancouver Saturday, including defensive mainstays Stefan Frei, Tyrone Mears, Brad Evans, Chad Marshall and Erik Friberg.
“It’s nice to have a lot more players healthy,” said Schmid. “We played seven fresh guys tonight, and those guys acquitted themselves well. It’s always easier when a young player plays next to an experienced player. It makes the game a little bit easier.”
One of those veterans was a revitalized Marco Pappa, who played like a man possessed as he danced around defenders and generally looked like the most like his old self since he rejoined the team after his DUI arrest in July.
Pappa served the crucial ball in Seattle’s second goal. Striking a long free kick, Pappa’s service bounced off Barrett and Valdez’ heads before rolling into the net in the 39th minute.
“We weren’t sure if he was going to get through 90 minutes,” said Schmid of the Guatemalan midfielder. “We needed him to get through it, and he did. He hits a good set piece that rewards us in a goal, and helped us control the tempo of the game. I knew he was important for us tonight in our possession, because we didn’t have (Gonzalo Pineda and Osvaldo Alonso) out there, and maintaining possession against them is an important thing.”
Seattle held possession and bullied the Whitecaps in the midfield. Erik Friberg turned in an admirable performance in central midfield, making key tackles, distributing the ball, and occupying space that prevented the Whitecaps from building forward momentum.
Vancouver, meanwhile, suffered from a case of Sounder-itis, burdened with injuries and starting just one player from Saturday’s match. Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson admitted his team was young, but said that wasn’t the crucial factor in the outcome.
“In any game that you play, when you cross that white line, it’s about the correct mentality and making mistakes or not making mistakes,” said Robinson. “We conceded three bad goals. Whether you’re 18 years of age or whether you’re 34 years of age, if you should make mistakes, good players take advantage of them like Seattle did today.”
The Sounders can safely put the midweek distractions of the Champions League out of mind until next season, when they will participate in a two-legged quarterfinal. Their opponent will be determined from the final standings of the group stage, using goal differential as the primary tie-breaker.
With seven points and a plus-three goal margin, Seattle is currently last out of the four qualified teams (including fellow MLS sides D.C. United and the LA Galaxy and Querétaro of Liga MX). Depending on remaining results, Seattle could potentially wind up as the last-seeded team in the draw, but for the time being it will be an out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue as Seattle moves in to the last four games of the regular season.
Schmid was hopeful that the pair of 3-0 victories in a short span could help his team power up as they travel to Sporting Kansas City Sunday.
“The thing we talked about before the game was, ‘Hey, we’re starting to get in a rhythm, we’re starting to win games, confidence is growing – this is just another game in that step, in that sequence,’” said Schmid. “We’re talking about sequencing ourselves, building our confidence level and continuing to win games.”
Seattle returns to league play and will face Sporting KC at Sporting Park at 2 p.m. PT Sunday.