Thrown into the breach created by injuries, suspensions and callups, Lamar Neagle faced criticism for mediocre play. He also took on a workload that his body still feels.
It’s been an up and down season for Sounders winger Lamar Neagle. Flashes of talent were interspersed with stretches of frustration and failure, particularly during a grueling summer that saw a depleted Seattle squad take just three points from a 10-match span. Despite the inconsistencies, the 28-year-old remains a serviceable member of the Sounders, albeit one that was misused out of desperation in July and August and is still recovering.
Neagle admitted Thursday that consistency has been an issue for both him and the team.
“Consistency is a huge thing as an athlete; to have that is something that makes you comfortable,” said Neagle. “I think everyone looks for a bit of consistency and not having that is something to think about.”
For the Sounders, the only consistency through the middle of the season was that things were getting worse. The former league leaders lost to last-place teams in consecutive weeks in July, surrendered late goals, and seemed unable to spark any offensive threat.
As the Sounders try to recover a full-strength squad heading into the final two matches of the regular season, Neagle began several recent fixtures on the bench. The story was different during a summer that will go down as one of the greatest mid-season implosions ever by an MLS team.
Seattle’s available roster looked drastically different three months ago. Striker Obafemi Martins was injured, and fellow forward Clint Dempsey was absent for duty in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, an absence extended on the front end by a three-match ban for a moment of madness in the U.S. Open Cup.
Striker Nelson Valdez had not yet joined the team, and Marco Pappa spent the summer serving international duty with Guatemala as well as sitting, after his suspension from team activities following his arrest for DUI July 19. Even mid-season call-up, Andy Craven, from the reserves was quickly laid low with a leg injury.
The result was that the Sounders had two forwards they could call on to shoulder the burden of thr absences of Martins and Dempsey: Neagle and Chad Barrett. At the time, the depth up top was paper-thin. Apart from Darwin Jones and Victor Mansaray, whose performances on the training ground apparently did not inspire Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid with the confidence to start them, there was nowhere to turn.
Neagle and Barrett struggled to fill new roles. For Barrett, the problem may have stemmed from the fact that he had not seen significant minutes prior to getting the nod, or that he lacks Martins’ levels of speed and explosiveness. For Neagle, the issue was one of adapting.
The winger had difficulty moving to the interior, where he had less room to chase long balls. His skills in possession were more frequently tested by center backs working in tandem to pass him off.
The plundered midfield behind him, often lacking Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda, resorted to ponderous long balls in the desperate hope of sparking an attack. The result was a 1-9 stretch that dropped the Sounders from first place overall to 14th in the league power rankings.
Neagle was also called into action 36 times across all competitions this season, including eight taxing matches in August. The midfielder doesn’t want to use the fact that he may have been overworked as an excuse, but allowed that it may have been the case.
“It’s a possibility,” said Neagle. “You can attribute it to anything, you can make excuses for everything. I think them keeping on putting me in the team is a credit, it shows that they believe in me, no matter what was going on.”
Still, the veteran is aware of the criticism that his play has not lived up to his nine-goal, nine-assist campaign last season.
“I try not to read it when I’m doing well, I don’t read it when I’m doing (badly),” said Neagle. “I think it’s (that) I was on the field for most of the time when it was going bad. Somebody’s going to get it . . . sometimes you get the (flak).”
The flak was not without merit. In MLS play, Neagle had four goals and two assists. Since the roster’s revitalization, his service from the wing has suffered, and he has often held the ball too long when pressing the attack. In short, Neagle has the look of a man still trying to carry a team on his shoulders.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. Neagle has seven goals in 2015, including a crucial equalizing tally to salvage a point against Vancouver in the Champions League, as well as the game-winner in the return fixture that qualified the Sounders for the knockout stages of the competition next year. Neagle’s small-ball continues to excel as well, particularly when working in tandem with outside back Tyrone Mears along the sideline.
After a week’s rest, and with the club looking to piece everything together in time for the postseason, Neagle, from Federal Way, might be able to escape his shakiness and return to the form that once made him a fan favorite.
“I don’t think I’ve played that many games in a year yet, the body’s a little worn down, but with getting rest in the last few games, I can hopefully go into playoffs strong,” said Neagle. “I have the support of the club and my teammates. I’m going to keep training hard, and if they keep putting me on the field I’m going to keep fighting.”
Neagle’s drive to compete will never be in doubt, but it is up to him to emerge from his slump in time to help Seattle pursue its MLS Cup dreams.