Last January, Oniel Fisher was sitting in a communications class at the University of New Mexico when his phone shook in his pocket. And then it shook again. And again. And again.
Fisher knew what day it was. Everybody in the men’s soccer program at New Mexico did. Just a year earlier, four of his Lobos teammates had been taken in the MLS SuperDraft following a run to the College Cup semifinals in 2013. One of those was Kyle Venter, a fellow defender who went in the second round to the LA Galaxy. When January 20 rolled around earlier this year, nobody knew what was happening at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia better than Fisher. He hadn’t been widely tapped to be an early draft pick on any prominent mock draft, but he knew he had a shot.
But he still had class, which synched up perfectly with the draft’s second round. Fisher excused himself from class for five minutes to appraise the urgent pleadings of his phone, and that’s when his phone rang in his hand. Sounders 2 Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson was on the other line. Fisher heard himself being congratulated for being drafted by Sounders FC with the 40th overall pick in the draft.
Was this really happening?
“I went back to class, and I couldn’t stay in class so I just put my book in my bag and I just walked out,” Fisher said.
The first thing Fisher did after leaving class - “I just said I couldn’t stay; I just left” - was call his mom, which is when the dam broke and the tears came. Everything from his high school and club days in Jamaica to a junior college stint in Texas to his two seasons with the Lobos flooded his field of vision. There was still plenty of work to do, but in some sense one chapter of his unfolding story had closed to make way for a new one.
“Finally I’m getting somewhere I want to be, and getting the opportunity to get to play in MLS at a high level,” Fisher said. “It was great. But I didn’t know at all. I had no idea.”
Fisher’s spent the better part of his career coming out of left field. The pacy fullback was first scouted playing high school soccer while moonlighting for St. George’s SC, a club stationed in Buff Bay on Jamaica’s north coast roughly 35 miles from Kingston. University of North Carolina coach Carlos Somoano recruited Fisher to Chapel Hill, but he didn’t have the grades. So he was set up at Tyler Junior College in East Texas, where he made 20 appearances over two seasons from 2011-2012. A year before he arrived, Dom Dwyer had used TJC as a stepping stone to the University of South Florida and, eventually, Sporting KC.
But the transfer to North Carolina ultimately didn’t pan out, and Fisher went to New Mexico instead. While there, Fisher’s development kicked into overdrive. He started 34 of his 39 matches in Albuquerque and was an integral rightback for the national semifinal squad in 2013. That landed him on Seattle’s radar after yet another quality senior season in 2014, and with DeAndre Yedlin’s departure to Tottenham Hotspur, Sounders FC desperately needed cover at rightback.
What Seattle’s front office probably did not count on, however, was that Fisher would quickly develop into a first team-quality leftback in his first season in MLS.
After a quick four-minute sub appearance against FC Dallas on March 28, Fisher didn’t play again with the first team for nearly three months. Patiently biding his time as rookies do, Fisher’s first break came in late June with the team devastated by absences. With Fisher starting at rightback, Seattle lost to the Philadelphia Union 1-0 and then lost to the Portland Timbers 4-1 on the road in back-to-back matches.
Fisher didn’t start for the next six matches, triggering thoughts that the Fisher experiment might’ve closed down for the season. But it was about to be reborn in the ashes of a new position.
“Oniel’s a gritty guy,” Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. “He has good pace, and he works hard. He’s not afraid to mix it up. For a little guy he’s got a good presence out there on the field, and he’s played with good confidence. I think he’s learning and improving all the time.”
After a 3-1 loss at the LA Galaxy on August 9, the coaching staff decided to switch up the back line. In lieu of playing Fisher at his natural spot on the right, they slotted in the speedy overlapping flank player on the left, a perennial spot of need for just about every MLS team. Fisher’s first match there was a rousing 4-0 win over Orlando City on August 16, and he drew rave reviews. He finished a tidy 47-56 passing (he was third on the team in both categories), and chalked up three interceptions. Fisher’s nonchalance on possession combined with his ability to track back made him a natural on the other side. It helped that Fisher bounced around positionally at New Mexico. He played some of both fullback positions as well as right mid, which might remind some Sounders FC fans of Yedlin. The comparisons aren’t out of nowhere.
For Fisher, it didn’t matter where he played, so long as he got his shot to help the team.
“Coming [to leftback] wasn’t really that big of a deal, knowing I wanted to be on the field,” Fisher said. “Basically they said that we want you to play leftback and we think you can do it. Basically I just said I’d take the opportunity and embrace it. Now I’m playing and I’m liking it. It’s not as hard as I thought, but there’s still a lot to catch up on.”
Fisher hasn’t relinquished his spot on the left since the Orlando City game. He’s started there in each of the last three games, which gives the coaching staff even more options there on top of Dylan Remick and the recently injured Leo Gonzalez. Schmid thinks Fisher’s left foot is better than advertised, which could lead him to become a permanent fixture on the left if his performances continue apace.
For now, Fisher is reveling the moment. From Portmore, Jamaica to Seattle, Washington and everywhere in between, the 23-year-old’s wild ride is only just beginning.
“It’s definitely overwhelming to know I’m playing a lot of minutes now, but at the same time I’m a rookie coming in,” Fisher said. “There’s still a gap to learn a lot. You’ll always be learning. You can’t be too old to learn. Every day I come out on the field I listen, I look and see what’s there to take. Even if it’s a small detail I take it in and choose what I want to put towards my game. It’s been great for the past month knowing I’m playing. I just want it to continue.”