For a competitor like Brad Evans, patience may be his biggest gift to the Sounders this season.
Patience ultimately healed his recurrent knee injuries. Patience could reshape how he plays center midfielder. Patience could be the difference between a deep run into the Major League Soccer playoffs, or exiting early. And patience could be what makes Evans the starter despite Coach Sigi Schmid‘s effort to upgrade the center midfield position with Swedish first-division player Erik Friberg and now Argentine midfielder Mauro Rosales, who could be signed shortly.
He gets another chance Friday to make his improbable case for a starting position when Seattle faces Portland and then Vancouver on Sunday at the Cascadia Summit preseason competition at Starfire Staduim.
“It’s good to be back in the mix,” Evans said. “It is definitely something I’ve missed.”
This season of renewal for Evans is crucial for the Sounders. To push deep into the playoffs, they will need the efficient, steely, competitive and savvy playmaker to orchestrate a potentially potent offense. But he needs to demonstrate that he can assume the demanding responsibilities and stay healthy. These final preseason games will be a stern test for the Phoenix native.
At the same time, while the competitor in Evans embraces the challenges and the heightened expectations, the new, more patient Evans says he’s just glad to be playing soccer. For he wasn’t so sure he’d ever again play professional soccer. It got to the point last year, he said, that when he walked he couldn’t flex his quad muscle.
The moment of truth came when the doctor told him his best chance to heal would be to shut it down and give his tendinitis-riddled knee a summer break. He had earlier torn his miniscus in his other knee. Resting was a risk, because it was no sure-fire guarantee it would fix the problem. But the other option was an even riskier surgery — known as a patella tendon surgery. This surgical option would have sliced his knee open for the doctor to scrape out the tendinitis-infected tissue and replace the tendon with a cadaver tendon.
“That was probably the scariest part,” Evans recalled. “You’re probably not going to come back from that. So, I’m happy we shut it down and didn’t push it because ultimately that was the right decision.”
During his extended stay on the sidelines, Evans watched a lot of soccer. He studied the movements of his own teammates and of opponents from other teams who played his position. It opened his eyes to how he could improve his game. One of the things that struck him was how he could learn to be patient, or time his runs into the box better.
“It was something as little as focusing on patience — not being so anxious getting forward,” he said. “Not exerting too much energy, saving myself so that when I do make those forward runs, its full out, full concentration, not just being full out but mentally tired.”
To Alan Hinton, former NASL Sounders head coach and Sounders color commentator, that’s the kind of talk that could make Evans even more effective. Center midfielders –particularly in Schmid’s 4-4-2 — have got to cover for the wingers and forwards. Hinton believes Evans has to time those surging runs forward as well as do the dirty work.
“He’s also got to do his digging and scraping in the midfield,” Hinton said. “But I think the real story here is the huge amount of confidence the coach has in Brad as a top player. They protected (during MLS Expansion Draft) him even though he had been injured for months. That has to give him a real boost of confidence.”
Schmid, who coached Evans at Columbus where they won an MLS Cup, has never been bashful about the qualities Evans brings to the middle of the pitch. Earlier in preseason training, as Evans continued to show progress, he remarked to reporters on some of those qualities.
“One of the other MLS coaches who’s a friend of mine, one of the first things he said when we saw each other was, ‘Do people realize how much you miss Evans? He has the ability to make those late runs in the box, which are so hard to defend,’ ” Schmid told reporters earlier. “I said, ‘I don’t know if everybody realizes that.’ ”
Schmid has realized that since 2008.
Evans has always been a unique box-to-box player. At Columbus, Schmid deployed him primarily as a defensive midfielder. But his work rate and his ability to push forward proved to be valuable on the attack. It was a surging late run against the New York Red Bulls two years ago that enabled Evans to score the first goal for the Sounders in MLS history.
“He doesn’t have the same flair as, for example, (Steve) Zakuani or (Fredy) Montero, but what he provides for us in the midfield is he’s that link,” Schmid said. “He’s that guy that gets into the box late. He’s that guy that becomes another scoring threat for us as a midfielder who gets a goal every five or six games.”
Evans says he’s grateful for being protected and wants to show his gratitude by winning the MLS Cup in Seattle. The squad is deep in every position, he said, and “its a competitive squad that is looking to win. Right now is the time.”
Evans, who played striker at University of California-Irvine, says his essential soccer qualities are threefold: Winning balls in the midfield, heading on set pieces, but the most important thing is the late runs into the box. “Its so quick and come just as play is over, so it is hard to defend,” he said. “Thats probably the best quality. Being a striker in college has helped my touch in the box, and Im able to finish. Hopefully, that will rub off this year.”
But more than anything else, Evans has learned the virtue of being patient, and that is a lesson that could serve him and the Sounders well this year.
“The most important thing for me this year,” he said, “is to stay healthy.”