For much of the 2014 season, the main question mark surrounding the Seattle Sounders was their defense.
But now, as they prepare for the decisive leg of the Western Conference Championship against the LA Galaxy on Sunday (9 pm ET; ESPN in the US, RDS2 in Canada), the Sounders might be defending at as a high a level as they have all season.
Despite giving up a goal in the first leg last weekend at StubHub Center, the Sounders’ backline held firm enough against one of the league’s most potent offenses to keep the club within striking distance of winning their first conference title at home on Sunday.
Of course, standout performances from backline staplesnChad Marshall and DeAndre Yedlin deserve much of the credit for this improved play, but Seattle have also received key contributions from a much less heralded source: veteran center back Zach Scott.
At 34 years old, Scott has elevated his game at the back end the season and into the playoffs, playing his best soccer of the year – and maybe of his career – at a time when the Sounders need it the most.
“As a back four I think we’re pretty comfortable with each other,” Scott said following Seattle’s scoreless draw against Dallas earlier this month that sent them through the Conference Championship. “Everything kind of comes together at the right time…I think it’s kind of typical of what you want to see when the playoffs come. It’s going to be a lot of games where you end up grinding out results.”
Scott hasn’t always been perfect in these playoffs – head referee Kevin Stott controversially left him on the field in the first leg against the Galaxy despite an early yellow card and then a series of fouls in the second half– but he’s been steady as ever, a hallmark of an ironman career that had auspicious beginnings back in 2002.
Scott played in his 300th game across all competitions for the Sounders earlier this season, and reached No. 305 last weekend. That puts him in elite company among the hardiest players in modern North American soccer, trailing only D.C. United’s Jaime Moreno, LA’s Cobi Jones, Chicago’s CJ Brown and Logan Pause and New England’s Shalrie Joseph among the players who have played the most games with one club.
“It’s never been a goal of mine,” Scott says of the historic milestones. “I couldn’t have told you before a couple weeks ago when I hit game number 300 the amount of games I had played. It was news to me when that came around.”
Scott’s status as a player with remarkable longevity is all the more intriguing when you consider the long and winding road he took to get here. His path to an MLS career was paved with uncertainty, with retirement a very realistic option at multiple points along the way.
His journey can be traced back to 2002, after he wrapped up a standout career at Gonzaga University. Longtime Zags head coach Einar Thorarinsson pulled strings to get him a tryout with the Sounders, at the time a member of the United Soccer League First Division.
“I wanted to chase the opportunity to play professional soccer,” Scott says. “But I wasn’t going to put all my eggs in one basket. I wasn’t at a point where it was a given by any means.
“I was at an open tryout for God’s sake. There were guys with cut jeans trying out for the Sounders…[For me] it was Sounders or bust. I was ready to retire then.”
He showed enough at the tryout to earn his shot and the Sounders offered him a contract. But even with the accomplishment of making the team, Scott’s professional future still very much hung in the balance. The contract was on a per-game basis and he only got paid if he got on the field.
And even then, playing on a USL salary in 2002 was anything but a lucrative proposition.
“I would have played for peanuts, and kind of did play for peanuts that first year,” Scott said. “But it’s something in hindsight I would have done all over again. It was kind of instrumental in shaping my career in regards to realizing this wasn’t going to be easy at all. This was going to be a grind no matter what opportunity I got. Every step of the way was going to be a battle.”
Scott had arrived at a fork in the road, forced to choose between chasing his dream or facing the reality that it was time to choose a path that could offer more stability and support.
He had gone to school to be a teacher and worked as a substitute in the offseason. It was a viable back-up plan, one that he strongly considered pursuing as he evaluated his chances at making it as a soccer player.
Ultimately, however, Scott resolved to keep going. The feeling of stepping on the field as a professional player for the first time was intoxicating, something that he couldn’t just give up or leave behind, even with little money, fame or professional stability to show for it.
His next stop was a stint the Cleveland Force of the Major Indoor Soccer League, a period in his career that made him dig even deeper than before and one where he says he may have learned the most.
Away from his wife, who was back home working in Seattle, Scott says Cleveland is where he truly dialed in, training tirelessly for days on end in a constant effort to refine his game.
“It was a tough experience,” Scott said. “But it was also one where I can remember specifically thinking, ‘This isn’t fun, but I’m going to use it as a chance to get better and just literally eat, sleep, breathe soccer.'”
“That’s all I was doing was playing soccer. You get to the indoor facility and train and as soon as training was done, stay after for an hour or two because I didn’t have anything else to do, you know? That was literally every single day and it sucked.”
After another indoor stint with the San Diego Sockers, Scott returned to Seattle in 2003.
He hasn’t looked back.
“He’s a guy who has just persevered and battled,” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid said. “His improvements in the years he has been in MLS have been fantastic. I’m sure he feels that if he knew what he knows now and he was 10 years younger, it would be great.”
There are plenty of players on a stacked Seattle roster that are more innately athletically gifted than Scott. But not everyone reaches 300 games on a professional roster, and Scott’s teammates understand this.
More importantly, they respect it.
“[Scott] gets a lot of respect,” Seattle forward Lamar Neagle said. “I always mention him whenever people ask me, ‘Who are some of the older guys on the team that you look up to?’ His professionalism is unmatched. Being here for a long time, the longevity. He’s been here for the whole time so it’s nice to see him get some recognition.”
Scott now stands much closer to the end of his career than he does to the beginning. Regardless of what happens for the rest of his time in MLS, Scott can say that he has accomplished more as a professional than anyone thought he could.
And the rare accomplishment of being able to say that he has played his entire MLS career for the same club is one that Scott puts at the top of the list.
“It’s tremendous,” Scott said. “I wouldn’t play anywhere else. My career here has been wilder and beyond anything I could have imagined when I started playing in 2002 for Seattle. By far the biggest thing is just seeing soccer grow, the Sounders brand grow.”
“To be here, playing in front of 1,500 fans at Memorial Stadium and right now, selling out CenturyLink for regular season games, the transition the community has gone through with their support of the Sounders has been amazing.”
However, Scott says the biggest reward has been the impact his career has had on his family. His kids are old enough now that they will remember watching him play. His wife has watched him journey from the USL to the indoor leagues to becoming a key member of the defense of one of the top teams in all of MLS.
As he looks back and reflects on it all, Scott says it’s hard to see how it could have worked out any better.
“It’s been everything,” Scott said. “It’s everything I wanted from this. To be able to do what I love and have the people I love still around me and a part of it. That’s all that’s ever mattered to me. The money doesn’t mean anything. It’s always been about having my family involved in it because they’ve been there every step of the way.”