The second day of Sounders preseason concluded on a sunny Wednesday morning with two new players making a case for themselves: Jamaican forward O’Brian White and Irish left back Danny Earls.
Things they share in common: both are foreigners, both have suffered setbacks in their professional careers and both have something to prove. But that’s where the similarities end.
White, a powerful and explosive forward, was highly regarded coming from the University of Connecticut. He was named MAC Hermann Trophy Winner as a junior for scoring 23 goals in 24 games. Toronto FC selected him fourth overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. But a serious knee injury slowed White’s progress at Toronto. Over two years, he made 33 appearances, scoring just four goals.
The diminutive Earls climbed the Irish youth ranks and made it to the much coveted Dublin & District Schoolboys League, at age 12. The DDSL is the top youth league in Ireland. By 16, Earls accepted an offer to join to the Aston Villa Youth Academy, which is known for developing professional players and is part of the English Premier League club.
But it ultimately didn’t work out at Aston Villa, and so Earls came to the United States, where he went from the Rochester Rhinos, USL-1, to the Colorado Rapids last year. He started half the season then fell out of favor and Colorado traded him to Seattle soon after winning the MLS Cup.
Now both are competing for 28 roster spots in a preseason environment the Sounders veterans agree is the most competitive in the club’s three-year MLS history. But both men share a similar upbeat attitude even though the coaches view their potential contributions to the team somewhat differently.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid covets the speed, size and explosiveness of White, 25. His style is similar to forward Blaise Nkufo, one of three designated players, but he appears to have a much quicker first step and likes to face players and take them on. His movement with and without the ball, in and out of the box, has looked dangerous. In the scrimmages, he has either scored or set up players for shots on goal.
“I think this club is going to have a lot of joy with OBrian White before the day is over,” Schmid said.
Making the roster is probably the least of White’s concerns. He already has been given No. 13. But his challenge is trying to regain the superlative goal-scoring form that had made him such an effective player in college, as well as for the Jamaican National Team. His challenge is to prove that he can score goals in this league, if not show his doubters that he can be one of the most dangerous strikers in the MLS.
To accomplish those, White will have to squeeze playing time from his own teammates in one of the positions that already stocked with talents like Fredy Montero, Nkufo, Nate Jaqua and Mike Fucito. White remains confident he can muscle or finesse his way into significant playing time. “Whenever you go to a new team it’s a new start,” he said. “I just want to play and do good for myself and good for my team. My goal is to work hard and play in the MLS games.”
Rebounding from a serious knee injury, he believes, has given him the confidence and strength to fight for a position. Sitting out for so long rehabilitating his leg helped to give him perspective that can only come from experiencing a serious setback. “You can’t take anything for granted,” White said. “I realized you need to make the most of it while you’re there. Nothing lasts forever.”
For Earls, making the roster is probably his biggest concern. He has not been given a jersey number and must battle his way onto the final squad. The defensive group already is among the deepest the Sounders have brought into camp. The incumbent starter, Leo Gonzalez, was a World Cup starter for Costa Rica. Then there is the highly touted rookie, Michael Tetteh, who has been given No. 14, and veteran defender Tyson Wahl, whose ability to play several defensive positions is an asset.
Undaunted by the odds, Earls, 21, has embraced the challenge with confidence and gusto. He likes to attack from his left back position and serve crosses into the box. His first touch under pressure looked sharp and he likes to tackle. “I get up and down the line and I will give 100 percent,” he said. “It’s the Irish style of playing. Get stuck in, get my foot in, get crosses into the box.
“I just give my all. I don’t see it any other way,” Earls said. “Hopefully I can get a roster spot and nail it.”
Earls fell out favor with Colorado coach Gary Smith after he began brightly, starting 15 games of 18 games in the MLS. Earls did not play in the MLS Cup final and was traded to Seattle just days after the Rapids won the league championship.
“Sometimes that happens with players,” said Chris Henderson, Sounders technical director. “Sometimes giving a player a second chance to prove himself in a new environment is what is needed for things to click.”
Earls accepts the inherent insecurity of pro sports. He prefers to view the world as half full rather than half empty. For him, it’s about a strong mental attitude and self-belief — and making a good first impression when it counts. At 5-9, he’s had to fight and scrap to make it this far in an era where coaches tend to prefer taller defenders.
“If you can’t believe in yourself how is someone else going to believe in you?” Earls said. “You can’t expect to succeed every time because failing makes you better. I’m not saying I failed there (Colorado). I feel like I improved as a player. It’s not really a setback for me. I got traded here and I feel like this is a bigger and better club.”
Schmid said Earls has shown well, so far. He’s competed well, he’s battled well, he’s got a good left foot, which is always a plus. But Schmid stopped short of saying too much more. The coaching staff still needs time to evaluate all of the players.
“It’s going to be difficult at the end of the day for our team to make our final decisions,” Schmid said. “The overall caliber of players is stronger than it’s ever been but he’s definitely somebody whose in there.”
That’s all Earls needs to hear. He knows the rest is up to him.
“I’ve got to get stuck in, be an all-around player, roll up my sleeves, and get up and down the line,” he said. “If I don’t play to my strengths, I won’t be on the team.”