Sounders get a boost from some local talent

don.ruiz@thenewstribune.comMarch 10, 2014 

There was an unlikely South King County convergence Saturday when Seattle Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid substituted Sean Okoli for Lamar Neagle.

Both are from Federal Way, a city of more than 90,000 people, and played their way onto the Sounders’ 18-man gameday roster.

“(The fans) started chanting ‘2-5-3,’ ” Neagle said, noting the Federal Way area code. “I didn’t know if it was for me or him. It’s amazing. ... We actually both went to (Federal Way’s Todd Beamer High School) — I went there for a semester.”

Neagle, who went on to star at Thomas Jefferson High School, is in his fifth Major League Soccer season and made his 48th career start Saturday. When he left the pitch in the 86th minute, it made way for Okoli’s professional debut.

“When I came in, the coaches told me to do the best I can and get behind the defense and try to make an impact,” Okoli said.

He did as he was told. In the fourth minute of stoppage time, Okoli made a key pass in the possession that led to a goal by Chad Barrett and a 1-0 Sounders win against defending MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City.

“I just tried to get the ball at my feet and get a couple of touches in,” Okoli said. “On the counter, Clint (Dempsey) found me on the far side, and I just whipped the ball in. It was a mosh pit in there, so it was good to see our guys get on the end of it.”

It was quite an introduction for the 21-year-old, who on Jan. 8 signed on as a homegrown player after amateur success in the Sounders Academy, with the Pierce County-based Sounders U-23 and with Wake Forest University in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Okoli and midfielder Aaron Kovar of Seattle became the second and third homegrown Sounders, following the path blazed last season by starting right back DeAndre Yedlin.

“It was a proud moment, not just for him, but for me, too,” Yedlin said. “It’s crazy being reunited with him, and I couldn’t help but smile when he was coming on the field because I know what that’s like to come and play for the first time. I’m sure it was an amazing feeling for him.”

Yedlin moved into the Sounders’ starting lineup last season and blossomed into one of the top rookies in the league. He received his first international cap this winter.

The Sounders said they didn’t expect that kind of breakthrough to be repeated by Okoli or Kovar. However, Okoli was impressive enough during exhibition play to be included on the season-opening 18, to be used as one of the three substitutes, and to contribute to the game’s lone goal.

“He has been improving all preseason,” Schmid said. “We knew he had some speed that could give (SKC defender Josh Gardner) problems: That’s why I wanted him on the right. He played as a forward at Wake Forest, so he’s learning a little more how to play wide. You’re not old or young; you’re either a good player or a bad player.”

The Sounders return to training Monday, beginning preparations for their next MLS match at 1:30 p.m. Saturday when Toronto FC visits CenturyLink Field.

Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808 don.ruiz@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/soccer @donruiztnt

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