TUKWILA — Shane O’Neill just wanted to experience that vibe of a championship organization.
But due to the roster hole the Sounders have along their defensive back line, the veteran center back could do more than experience the vibe — he could see the field quite a bit while helping Seattle defend its 2019 MLS Cup.
“I’ve been desperate to be a part of a team that’s had kind of a winning culture and see what that’s all about, honestly,” said O’Neill, a 26-year-old native of Middleton, Ireland. “All of the other seasons have been, not disappointments, we just hadn’t been successful.”
O’Neill has played six MLS seasons since his rookie debut in 2012. The past two were for Orlando City SC, which had a combined 17-37-14 record in the league’s Eastern Conference. O’Neill started 24 matches.
“For me, I was like, at this point in my career I want to be part of a winning team no matter what that means in terms of playing time,” O’Neill said. “It was more so about, I want to get better as a player. I want to challenge myself. There’s no better club in MLS right now than Seattle for that.”
O’Neill’s presence immediately made the Sounders’ second day of training Wednesday intriguing. Two well-known facts about the Sounders: They win — advancing to the postseason an MLS-record 11 consecutive times — and they have one center back.
Xavier Arreaga, a talented defender signed from Ecuador last spring, is the only true returning back. Mainstays Chad Marshall (retired) and Roman Torres (signed with Inter Miami CF) are gone. South Korean standout Kim Kee-hee’s contract expired in December.
“We have quite a few players that are actually versatile,” Sounders keeper Stefan Frei said of the Sounders possibly using defensive midfielders Gustav Svensson or Jordy Delem in the back. “But I know (Sounders general manager) Garth (Lagerwey) has some things up his sleeve, and I’m sure he’s looking at where we can improve the squad. I have full confidence in that. We’ll be all right.”
O’Neill and Tacoma Defiance defender Sam Rogers are the leading candidates in camp to grab an early spot in the rotation. Rogers, a 20-year-old native Seattleite, had a breakout 2017 season in the United Soccer League (USL) but has dealt with nagging injuries and spent three weeks on trial with Belgium side Standard Liege last summer and didn’t get a contract. He spent the offseason following a Sounders training routine to prepare for the preseason camp.
“I’m more sure of myself now, and I’m able to read situations and keys better,” Rogers said of his growth. “Everyone knows there’s spots open. I just want to be the next person in line to be able to grab that. I’ve just got to show it the next few weeks.”
O’Neill and Rogers were on opposite teams for a lengthy scrimmage to end the Sounders’ training Wednesday at Starfire Sports. The club will hold two more practices at the facility before traveling to California, then Mexico, to continue camp and play competitive closed-door scrimmages against area teams.
Seattle is one of five MLS clubs that will compete in the CONCACAF Champions League before opening the MLS season in March. Because the Sounders want to make a deep run in Champions League and repeat as MLS champions, they’ll need talented depth to make it through what would be 46 matches, including MLS’s 34-game schedule.
After just two days practicing with the Sounders, O’Neill could sense the difference between an organization with lofty goals versus clubs he’s been with where the benchmark is to get the first playoff berth in decades.
“The standards are pretty high,” Sounders assistant coach Preki Radosavljevic said. “We’re hoping that some of these younger guys, now that we don’t have everybody here, step up and embrace this opportunity. Maybe we’ll find a guy or two that can help us. … So far we like what we see, there’s good energy and hopefully it stays like this.”
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