SEATTLE – Seattle Sounders rookie midfielder Handwalla Bwana had no trouble admitting he was nervous before he made his first professional start in Seattle’s Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal matchup with Chivas de Guadalajara at CenturyLink Field on Wednesday.
So pronounced were those nerves, Bwana told reporters following Wednesday’s match, that he decided to seek the advice of a decidedly high-profile veteran teammate – one who he figured would probably know a thing or two about calming pregame jitters.
“I remember just talking to Clint [Dempsey] about it,” Bwana said. “I was like, ‘Yo, Clint, I’m really scared right now.’ And Clint was like, ‘You’re here for a reason, you know? You just do your thing. They brought you here for a reason. Show the fans what you’re about.’”
Based on Wednesday’s match, it appears that the 18-year-old Homegrown product took those words to heart.
Bwana put in a solid shift in Seattle’s 1-0 first-leg result that was highlighted by Dempsey’s 78th-minute game-winner, showing the dynamic attacking traits that made him a two-time All-Pac-12 selection at the University of Washington and drawing the praise of head coach Brian Schmetzer after the game.
That performance came on the heels of a notable cameo he made as a substitute in Seattle’s MLS regular season-opener against LAFC on Sunday, where very nearly had a dramatic equalizer that deflected off the crossbar just after he entered the game.
“Handwalla, I mean, that was the surprise for all of us,” Schmetzer said. “I mean, the kid played great. He came on and didn’t have any fear of the game. The game wasn’t too big for him. So, I was very impressed with his composure in a big game. And then you guys all saw the quality that he brings.
“He runs at people, he can get by one or two guys, his passing is very clean. And probably the biggest surprise for me is sometimes you label attacking players as they can’t defend or they don’t want to defend. The kid understands his role. He’s a young guy on the squad, so he’s got to get up and down and he did that tonight.”
Added Dempsey: “[Bwana] is growing as the season goes on, he’s getting better and better. He has good pace, can take people one-on-one. He just needs to get more games under his belt, get that confidence going. …So, the future’s bright for him.”
Bwana wasn’t the only young face to play a major role in Wednesday’s proceedings for Seattle. Second-year midfielder Henry Wingo bagged the assist with a pinpoint cross on Dempsey’s goal after he entered as a second-half substitute, while right back Jordan McCrary has filled in capably while starter Kelvin Leerdam is sidelined with a sprained ankle.
The season is still young and there is much to prove, but the degree to which Schmetzer has already entrusted the likes of Bwana and Wingo with first-team minutes suggests that Seattle’s youthful faces could continue to play big roles as the season progresses.
“The development of young American players is certainly important. It’s important to every club in our league,” Schmetzer said. “If the guys are going to be good enough at Handwalla’s age, Henry’s age, if they’re good enough they’ll play.”