Andrew Gregor and Leighton O'Brien had no idea they'd be wearing Seattle Sounders colors this season. After playing for different teams...
Andrew Gregor and Leighton O’Brien had no idea they’d be wearing Seattle Sounders colors this season.
After playing for different teams in 2004, Gregor and O’Brien couldn’t be any happier that they both ended up in Seattle in 2005.
The two veteran central midfielders were two big reasons — both in different ways — that the Sounders collected the franchise’s third league championship with a hair-raising 2-1 shootout win over the Richmond Kickers on Saturday night at Qwest Field.
Gregor, 29, played for the rival Portland Timbers last season, but returned as a free agent for his third tour of duty in Seattle in 2005. O’Brien, 29, figured to get his big break and played through Aug. 15 with Real Salt Lake of Major League Soccer this season before getting released.
O’Brien savored his first pro championship with Sounders teammates, as did Gregor. Down 2-0 in the shootout, Richmond rallied for a chance to win on the last kick in the fifth round of penalty kicks, but Kevin Jeffrey shot high over the crossbar.
“To be honest, we’re a better team than Salt Lake,” said O’Brien, an eighth-year pro who played the United Soccer Leagues First Division title match with a broken right foot. He will have surgery to repair the foot on Oct. 11. “If this were like the English Premier League, they’d be down and we’d be up.”
Nine-year veteran Scott Jenkins, who is retired as of today, converted the decisive penalty kick in a shootout for a 4-3 edge in kicks as Seattle (19-8-12) won its first title since back-to-back crowns in 1995 and 1996.
Gregor, an eighth-year pro, broke his right foot in the preseason and missed two-thirds of the season.
“This is right up there for me, personally,” said Gregor, who was relegated to the bench two days before the playoffs started on Sept. 16. “It was a tough year for me. I had my ups and downs with the coach [Brian Schmetzer], but I had to get over those things and help us persevere to get a championship.”
Gregor, who nailed the first PK in the shootout, was replaced in the starting lineup by rookie Gabe Sturm late in the season and ultimately in the playoffs.
“Who took the PKs when they needed to be taken?” Gregor said, rhetorically. “Not the young guys. We had our best senior guys step up and take the PKs. But our young guys did a lot of the hard work on the field.
“We’re a team from top to bottom. I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t love this place and love these guys.”
The Sounders’ title team was a perfect mix of young and old. Schmetzer, 43, helped send off Sounders legend and assistant coach Jimmy Gabriel, 65, on a championship high.
Gregor also was happy for the 31-year-old Jenkins, a 91st-minute substitute, as he concluded his career as a winner.
“It’s over the moon for Scott,” Gregor said. “He’s a 100 percent genuine professional to the end. He’s a guy that, no matter what, you can count on him on the field or off it.”
It was Jenkins who possibly influenced the season the most at a team meeting after the Sounders suffered a 2-0 road loss in Puerto Rico on Sept. 6. Jenkins challenged Schmetzer to be more of a leader and make difficult decisions.
Schmetzer questioned his team’s heart at the team meeting. Jenkins agreed with most of his coach’s assessment, but essentially the veteran told him to do something about it.
“Leadership starts at the top,” Jenkins said.
Schmetzer benched starter Gregor for Sturm after inserting Brent Whitfield for veteran Welton earlier in the season. The moves paid dividends.
“I might have been gun-shy before that conversation [with Jenkins],” Schmetzer said. “I’ll remember that conversation with Scott the rest of my coaching career.”
• Sounders goalkeeper Preston Burpo, 33, supplied six saves and made one diving save in the shootout to earn Most Valuable Player honors in the championship match. Burpo quickly came back down to Earth yesterday, traveling to coach his youth team early in the morning in Vancouver, Wash.
“The older keepers get, they better they are,” O’Brien said. “He doesn’t have to be as quick, because he knows where to be. Preston deserves a shot somewhere [in MLS].”