The 2011 season was filled with highs and lows for the Sounders FC.
For every instant of bad fortune, though, there was an equally impressive tale of perseverance and determination that propelled the Sounders to the second-best record in Major League Soccer, a third straight US Open Cup title and a berth in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
Perhaps most surprising of those tales was that of Lamar Neagle, the 24-year-old midfielder from Federal Way.
He was something of a revelation throughout the season and proved valuable in Seattle’s 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake, though they fell in the Western Conference semifinal series 3-2 on aggregate. Seattle’s second-leading scorer, midfielder Alvaro Fernandez, suffered a hamstring injury in the first 15 minutes of the match and Neagle was called on to fill his role on the left wing.
His goal in the 61st minute gave Seattle a 2-0 lead and furthered the parallel between the playoff game and Neagle’s breakthrough match at Rio Tinto Stadium earlier this year, when Fernandez suffered a hamstring strain early in the match and Neagle came on to score what proved to be the game-winning goal.
“It was a little weird when he went down and I started warming up,” Neagle said of Fernandez’s injury on Wednesday. “I was like, ‘Here we go again.’”
He finished the season with five goals and two assists, including a hat trick against the Columbus Crew, starting nine matches and playing over 1000 MLS regular season minutes for the Sounders FC. It’s just the start of his growth as a player, but he’s already come so far in the last three years.
Neagle joined the Sounders in 2009 after finishing school at UNLV. However, he only made two appearances all season, both coming in friendlies against Chelsea and Barcelona. He rejoined Sounders FC training camp in 2010 and found himself on the brink of being let go by the club several times, but managed to battle all the way to the end of camp before finally landing with the Charleston Battery in the USL-2.
There, he was the league MVP, leading Charleston to the USL-2 title. That earned him a stint with Mariehamn in Finland, where he continued his scoring success, building confidence for another crack at making the Sounders FC in 2011.
Brimming with faith in his own abilities, Neagle made the team out of camp and saw limited in action in five matches in a deep Seattle midfield before his breakout performance on May 28 against Real Salt Lake.
In the 12th minute of that match, Fernandez went down hurt and Neagle came on to take his place. In the second half, Neagle cut to the middle from the left side and rocketed a blast off the crossbar and in for his first MLS goal, helping the Sounders to a 2-1 victory to end Real Salt Lakes’ 29-match home unbeaten streak.
Wednesday was similar, but this time he found himself free up the left side for a pass from Fredy Montero and ripped a shot inside the far post for his first playoff goal. That goal, like the one five months earlier, lifted his confidence even more and he finished the match with three shots on goal.
“You can say it’s always difficult to get into the game when you’re a sub,” Neagle said. “It’s just something that happens. I was definitely more into the flow of the game in the second half, so I was able to go out and do a lot better in the second half.”
His efforts in the match Wednesday, and throughout the year, didn’t go unnoticed by head coach Sigi Schmid.
"He’s a young player in terms of experience and he’s learning every time he gets out there,” Schmid said after the match. “I think he grew up today a little bit in terms of being a little stronger, a little tougher. Then obviously he scored a good goal and was involved in a lot of our offensive actions. He continues to grow and improve.”
Neagle will return as part of a deep midfield in 2012 that could include returning starters Fernandez, Mauro Rosales, Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso, along with the ever-dynamic Steve Zakuani returning from injury as well as frequent contributors Erik Friberg, Roger Levesque and Servando Carrasco.
The Sounders will open the 2012 season with the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals in early March. Pairings and dates for matches will be announced next week.