SALT LAKE CITY – A year ago at this time, Lamar Neagle had just finished the season with the Charleston Battery of the USL and was setting up a brief stint with IFK Mariehamn of the Finnish league.
Saturday night, he’ll probably be starting in one of the most important games in Seattle history, as the Sounders play at Real Salt Lake (10 pm ET; FOX Soccer, TSN2; live chat on MLSsoccer.com) in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals.
Neagle is the presumptive starter because Mauro Rosales, Seattle’s talismanic attacker, has been ruled out with a strained right MCL.
It’s an opportunity for Neagle, but not exactly a new situation. The 24-year-old has scored six goals in 32 games across all competitions for the Sounders, and he’s been one of the biggest contributors both off the bench and in spot-duty as a starter.
“Depth definitely comes into play for me. Starting out on the reserve team, not even knowing that I was gonna get as many minutes as I have this year,” Neagle explained. “[With the first team], I’ve kind of just been able to do what I was doing with the reserve team.”
That time spent in the reserves paid off almost from the start, as the Sounders were battling injuries from April and onward. The growth in Neagle’s game during that span hasn’t been lost on his teammates.
“For me, seeing a young player coming up through the team and finding his niche, it’s been great,” veteran defender Jeff Parke said. “He’s done so much. He’s worked so hard, and when he’s come in, he’s had a lot of big goals for us. He’s made a huge jump.”
Part of that jump is just realizing who he is as a player. Neagle won’t pose the same kinds of problems for RSL that Rosales does – while the Argentine is one of the league’s premier playmakers, Neagle is more of an all-action, attack-the-box type of winger who wants to get into the attacking third and have a rip.
“With my work ethic, I just want to try to finish as many chances as I can get,” Neagle said. “And it’s kind of worked out.”
Particularly so against the Claret-and-Cobalt. Neagle scored the game-winner back in May in Seattle’s 2-1 win over RSL at Rio Tinto, a chip from the top of the box after ghosting inside to find space.
“With the fluidity that we have in the midfield and up top, it’s kind of hard for them to focus on one guy,” Neagle said. “Being one of the newcomers, it’s kind of easy for me to kind of be under the radar. They’re more focused on the Monteros [forward Fredy Montero], the Flacos [winger Álvaro Fernández] ... because we have so many threats, it’s kind of easier to fit in and do your thing.”
What may have been true in May isn’t the case in October. Neagle isn’t under the radar anymore, and on Saturday, he’ll get his chance from the start under the bright lights of the playoffs.
“I think from the start, MLS Cup has been the main goal of ours,” Neagle explained. “There’s a huge excitement, a buzz around this team for the playoffs. In the past, the team hasn’t done well in the playoffs, so we definitely want to change that this year. And with the guys we have, we think we can do really well.”