Greed is the difference to Shane O’Neill.
The journeyman defender signed with the Sounders FC last winter wanting to know what makes a club like the Rave Green successful compared with some of the stops he’s made across Major League Soccer and overseas. Seattle (9-3-3) has won five of its past six matches and is on pace to clinch its MLS-leading 12th consecutive postseason berth.
Yet, as the Sounders travel to play Los Angeles FC at Banc of California Stadium on Sunday, O’Neill and his teammates aren’t satisfied. Seattle wants more victories, more achievements and, of course, more trophies.
“One thing in some MLS teams is there’s not really an expectation to win every single game,” O’Neill said during a video conference call Friday. “Some teams that I would think of would say that’s unfair, but having been in other locker rooms with other teams, I just don’t think that the expectation every single time you step on the field was to win the game. Whereas here, I feel like no matter where the game is — home or away — we want to win. We’re going for the Supporters’ Shield. We’re going for MLS Cup. Winning is the expectation. That’s a really unique situation.”
The downside to the expectation is when the Sounders start a season as they did last winter. With the bulk of the 2019 MLS Cup-winning roster, the Sounders dropped out of the CONCACAF Champions League in the opening round and in the MLS is Back tournament in the Round of 16.
Key players in Nico Lodeiro (hamstring) and Joao Paulo (quad) were unavailable for parts of both competitions due to injury. Add the four-month quarantine due to the COVID-19 outbreak and Lodeiro’s first match since the November championship was in July for the MLS tournament. And the co-captain’s first with Joao Paulo — a Designated Player signed in January — wasn’t until the league’s third restart in August.
Yet, the outlook was bleak after the Sounders lost 4-1 to LAFC in the MLS is Back tournament in July. Sounders center back Xavier Arreaga and O’Neill had errors that led to two LAFC goals.
“After the MLS is Back tournament, there was sort of like a little of this pressure building,” O’Neill said. “It was a poor game against LAFC. But it seemed like that one game was really, I don’t want to say blown out of proportion, but it was like — whoa — all this stuff stemming from this one performance where they (the LAFC players) played unbelievable. I remember coming off the field that day and saying that was one of the toughest games I’ve ever played.”
O’Neill, 27, said being sequestered as a team in Florida to participate in the league tournament amid the pandemic helped build chemistry. Not that he shied in establishing himself within the roster.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said training sessions are entertaining because of the duels O’Neill will have against forward Raul Ruidiaz. Or how the attackers challenge the goalkeepers during practice penalty kicks.
Lodeiro helped the Sounders defeat LAFC 3-0 in their last meeting in September off two penalty kicks while Ruidiaz added the third goal in the 82nd minute. Ruidiaz is third in the league in scoring with nine goals.
“Shane plays defense hard against Raul and Raul actually appreciates that,” Schmetzer said. “A lot of guys would say, ‘No, we don’t want to play hard on Raul because we don’t want to injure him.’ But Shane does. He trains like he plays the game and guys respect that. He’s a very good example of guys we want to have here in the club for a long term.”
O’Neill, who was signed as a free agent, has started eight of his 13 matches with the Sounders, tallying 793 minutes. He could start again against LAFC (6-6-3) due to Arreaga competing with Ecuador’s national team for World Cup qualifiers.
The Sounders also will be without Ruidiaz (Peru) and Gustav Svensson (Sweden) because of international call-ups. Midfielders Joevin Jones (ankle) and Danny Leyva (foot) are out due to injuries.
LAFC’s lineup also is thinned after international call-ups for forwards Brian Rodríguez (Uruguay) and Diego Rossi (Uruguay), defender Diego Palacios (Ecuador), and midfielder Jose Cifuentes (Ecuador). Rossi leads MLS in goals scored this season at 12.
“That’s been a huge pleasure this year — the standard of the players I’m playing against,” O’Neill said of Sounders training. “Sometimes I’ll do as good as I can and (Raul) will still embarrass me and that’s OK. It’s good lessons every day.”