2002 was a year that Leighton O'Brien recalls very fondly.
The Federal Way native had his best professional season that year, turning in 13 goals and 11 assists for the Seattle Sounders and winning the A-League MVP award. It was also a year that saw him play in front of a league-record crowd of 25,515 in the grand opening of CenturyLink Field (then called Seahawks Stadium).
But those aren't the first thing that comes to mind for O'Brien when he looks back on 2002.
"It seems like yesterday, but it's quite a while ago. It was a really good year," O'Brien said from his office at Starfire with Pacific Northwest Soccer Club where he serves as Technical Director. "My daughter was born – that was No. 1."
That's a bit of a window into O'Brien, who played for seven seasons with the Sounders in the A-League and USL, totaling 39 goals and 32 assists in 118 matches. A soccer junky who grew up in the game while his father – former Republic of Ireland international and local icon Fran O'Brien – played with the Tacoma Stars and Seattle Storm from 1985-1990.
However, that family element has always been foremost on his mind.
And it was a family atmosphere surrounding the 2002 team that propelled it to the best record in the A-League with several players that would go on to play in MLS and abroad. There was also plenty of talent that helped O'Brien become one of six Sounders players in the history of the club through the North American Soccer League, USL and MLS to earn MVP honors.
O'Brien led the league with 11 assists that season and his 13 goals put him second on the team behind future U.S. National Team forward Brian Ching, who was fourth in the league with 16 goals. In addition to O'Brien and Ching, Darren Sawatzky had nine goals and 10 assists, Viet Nguyen had eight goals and eight assists and Andrew Gregor joined O'Brien and Ching as First-Team All-League selections with eight goals and five assists.
That explosive offense scored four goals or more in 10 matches over the course of the 28-game schedule.
"We had a really good team and we were scoring goals like crazy and winning games like it was nothing," O'Brien said. "We had a good atmosphere on the team and guys really got along. Looking back, I remember how well we bonded."
That stacked attack led Seattle to a stunning 23-4-1 record and a plus-44 goal differential, giving first-year head coach Brian Schmetzer the A-League Coach of the Year honors after Seattle missed the playoffs a year earlier.
Part of what made him successful was his willingness to adapt to the roster of players he had in front of him.
"Brian was really good. He worked well with the players and had a good idea how to organize the team and gave you a lot of freedom as an attacking player to express yourself," O'Brien said. "He always had confidence in me and I flourished under that type of system and coach and I think the teams that he coached also did."
The season held many highlights – including a run in the US Open Cup that included a 6-1 ousting of the Portland Timbers over two legs in the qualifying round and taking the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS to overtime in the third round of the tournament.
However, the greatest highlight may have come when the Sounders opened a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium that was built to house the Seattle Seahawks, but also had a future push for Major League Soccer in mind. With 25,515 fans in attendance, the Sounders cut the ribbon on Seahawks Stadium, giving just a brief taste of what was to come when Sounders FC came to MLS in 2009. The opposing Vancouver Whitecaps were overwhelmed from the start and it was a great advertisement for the sport in a city that showed its passion for soccer at every turn.
"It was over. We smashed them and it was a great night. It was really memorable," O'Brien said of the 4-1 win over the Whitecaps. "It's a world-class facility. It's a great experience that I'll never forget."
While that was the first sporting event at CenturyLink Field, the experience has since been replicated by the 10s of thousands of fans that flow through the gates each week for Sounders FC.
To O'Brien, that outpouring of support comes as no surprise.
"Seattle was always a really traditional soccer city. My dad played for the Tacoma Stars and I grew up in the locker room with all the guys that are coaching now. I always knew the tradition was there," he said. "It was a sleeping giant and everyone knew it. The push with MLS just brought it further."
Now, O'Brien's focus has shifted from the professional game to growing youth soccer in the region, just as his father and so many of his Tacoma Stars teammates did before him.
With Pacific Northwest Soccer Club, he works to instill the same core values that made the Sounders so successful in his seven seasons with the team that saw him win league titles in 2005 and 2007.
"You always want to look back on the good and bad. We try to create teams that play a good style and a good atmosphere in the club," said O'Brien, who was active in the local youth clubs even while still playing professionally.
"That's important from a youth player to a professional – that they enjoy what they're doing and they believe in the people around them."
O'Brien is among a group of players that won league MVP honors that includes Roger Davies (1980), Peter Ward (1982), Peter Hattrup (1995), Mark Baena (1998) and Sebastien Le Toux (2007).