For four straight years, Pat Noonan found himself in the MLS Cup Final.
Although he walked away with the trophy only once - in 2008 with the Columbus Crew - the experience in big games in MLS makes Noonan a unique player in the league. His 42 goals over five seasons with a vastly talented New England Revolution side helped them reach the final three consecutive seasons, then he was traded to Columbus and helped them rise to success in 2008.
It is for those reasons that Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid is willing to be patient while Noonan recovers from hip surgery that had shelved him since September.
It is also for those reasons the Noonan is hungry to retain his old form. And that he was excited to score two goals against the University of Central Florida last week in a training game in Bradenton, Florida.
It is just one small step, but for the first time since July, Noonan felt he could strike a ball without worrying about pain in his hip.
“It’s crazy to think it’s been six months since I’ve played in a competitive game,” said Noonan, who had surgery in late September to repair an impingement and labrum tear in his hip. “It’s nice to have played in these matches and get my fitness up. It’s getting stronger and stronger. I’m happy with the progression.”
In Florida, Noonan, 30, played in all four matches, building up his fitness with increased minutes in each contest, highlighted by his two goals in 45 minutes against UCF, made even more significant because they came in the final few minutes of the half, when he was more fatigued.
It was a high mountain to climb for Noonan to reach that point. Now he can move to the next phase in regaining the abilities that made him a dangerous player before he was hindered by injuries.
“He’s an important guy in the locker room as well as on the field. He’s frustrated because he still wants to play better. He knows what it takes. He’s been in MLS Cup finals and he won an MLS Cup with me in Columbus,” Schmid said. “If we can get him healthy and keep him healthy, he is a guy who can play and contribute.”
Now nearing full strength, Noonan is hoping he can be a key piece to help the Sounders FC reach the heights of his previous teams. He sees similar traits between the New England teams that dominated the Eastern Conference on their way to three MLS cup finals in 2005-2007 and the Sounders team he is on now.
“We found ourselves in the MLS Cup because we worked hard for each other and were comfortable with each other and we had the right mentality. We expected to win every game,” he said. “This team is very similar, we expect to win every game, home or away in any condition. We need to have that high standard and killer instinct. Maybe we lacked that a little bit at times, but we sure have the personnel to get to MLS Cup after MLS Cup with the right combination of guys out there and we have plenty of combinations to choose from.”
Noonan is part of a deep group at midfield and forward that includes established MLS scorers, international talents and up-and-comers.
One thing Noonan never lost while out was his mind for the game. Even on the sideline he can regularly be heard talking about the spacing on the field or where to play passes and other intricacies of the game that can separate otherwise equal players.
In those quips, his desire to return to the field in a prominent role may be most obvious.
But he knows he has to be patient.
“Right now my fitness isn’t there, but that will come with time. I’m hoping that with the help that I’ve gotten from Dave Tenney and Randy Noteboom and Chris Cornish my body can get back to where it was five or six years ago and I can produce like I did then,” he said. “I’m very happy with the way that they’ve taken care of me and made me stronger and motivated to get out there and play. It’s tough to watch when you know you could be helping with experience and offensive awareness, but it’s all on me being healthy and getting my body in position to stay healthy for a year.”
The Sounders will return to training at Starfire in Tukwila on Wednesday and will face the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps in the Cascadia Summit on Friday and Sunday, respectively.