The last few years before he signed with the Sounders, Mears says, were “the worst period of my career and of my life,” a personal and professional trial that involved a broken leg and a drastic move to the U.S. for a fresh start.

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Tyrone Mears didn’t climb through that window seven years ago, but the most well-known tall tale of his colorful career contained a kernel of truth.

As the story goes, Mears was so desperate to push through a move from second-tier Derby County to French powerhouse Marseille that he not only wriggled through a window at Derby’s training ground but crawled past manager Paul Jewell’s office to retrieve his cleats.

Mears dismisses the story now as a miscommunication between club management and the embellishment of a local sports reporter looking for a hook.

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“Obviously,” he says with a smile and an English accent undimmed from his half-season in Seattle, “climbing through a window sounded better for readers.”

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But the myth, ridiculous as it was, misses the point: His burning ambition to play at the highest level was very real.

The Sounders are the 32-year-old defender’s eighth club in his 15-year professional career, a path that has wound just south of where he thought he belonged.

He arrived in Seattle this past offseason as a reclamation project, yet none of his previous stops brought the peace of mind he’s found since he arrived.

“That’s the problem that I’ve had in my career,” Mears said. “The grass is always greener. I’d always try to find a negative — ‘Oh, I should be doing this,’ or ‘I should be playing there. I should be on this better contract.’

“I wish someone would have sat me down and gave me that knowledge. ‘Look, you’re playing at this club. You’re playing in the Premier League. You’re not playing every game, but be patient and you’ll get your chance. Things will open up.’ ”

The last few years before he signed with the Sounders, Mears says, were “the worst period of my career and of my life,” a personal and professional trial that involved a broken leg and a drastic move to the U.S. for a fresh start.

A Sounders leader

For all his hard-won wisdom, Mears wasn’t looking to take on a leadership role when he arrived in Seattle. He just wanted to play.

He leads the team in starts and is second only to Lamar Neagle in appearances, and he is the rock of the back line that ranks third in the Western Conference despite the team’s recent losing streak. With his rotating hairstyles and nose for the big moment, Mears already has established himself as a fan favorite.

The smoothness of his transition to MLS hides how much of a question mark Mears was coming in as a replacement for star DeAndre Yedlin. Mears signed just a one-year deal, taking a significant pay cut for the promise of a fresh start.

Mears tried to halt Seattle’s skid both on the field — of the two goals the Sounders have scored in their past seven games, he has scored one and assisted on the other — and off it.

He was one of the veterans who pitched a team night out at a Mexican restaurant before the Sounders’ win against D.C. United on July 3. There was just one rule: no talking shop. Mears took a leading role at another team meeting this week after a loss at Montreal.

“I have no problem with him voicing his concerns to the media or voicing his concerns to the team,” Sounders defender Zach Scott said. “At no point have we broken apart. You don’t know what’s going to happen when a guy like DeAndre leaves. Then you get a guy like Tyrone, who’s not only a solid player, but a solid guy and a vocal leader.”

Learning tough lessons

For all the harsher lessons Mears picked up elsewhere, Seattle has taught him that training sessions can be a gift rather than a curse, and that there’s no shame in appreciating smaller joys.

“Even though we’re in a bit of a tough patch at the moment, I’ve been so low in my life and so low in my career that things like this, they don’t really affect me,” Mears said. “I know these things will turn around.”

His single year with Marseille was a dream — as it would turn out, a mirage.

Mears spent the 2008-09 season finally among the European elite, with the beaches of the French Riviera a short drive away, rumored to be due for a call-up to the English national team — yet his wife and kids were back in England.

Burnley represented a step down for a rising star but offered a chance to be closer to his family. Then the club was relegated from the Premier League the season after Mears signed in 2009.

He eventually left Burnley and landed with Bolton before the 2011 season, when his nightmare began. He broke his leg in a training session and reinjured it shortly following his return.

His personal life has suffered, too: Mears is going through a divorce, and his four children stayed behind in England when he signed with Seattle.

He fell even deeper into his malaise, considered giving up the sport that he had left school at the age of 15 to pursue.

“When I was injured, it got to the point where I was thinking about other things I could do,” Mears said. “I think, mentally, I was kind of giving up. But everything happens for a reason, the good and the bad. It’s definitely made me stronger as a person.”

Mears likes exploring the U.S. even if its vastness surprises him when he hops on an airplane bound for Columbus, Ohio, with a layover in between. He likes walking to his downtown apartment and being stopped by just a single fan, and that they offer a friendly hello instead of asking what happened on that missed tackle last weekend.

“But, yeah, now I appreciate it more,” Mears said, pausing and flashing a smile — and showing that old habits die hard. “Obviously, my contract could be better. … But in terms of soccer, of training, playing, I couldn’t ask for a better club to be at.”