For the first 73 minutes of the Seattle Sounders’ showdown Saturday against the Los Angeles Galaxy, Marco Pappa was just another spectator watching a crude version of soccer.
The most entertaining soccer games contain a persistent back-and-forth flow similar to a tennis volley. This game — it ended with a combined six yellow cards and 40 fouls — had the flow of a telephone conversation impeded by a bad connection.
Some of this had to do with the Galaxy’s determination to take the air out of the ball, as it were. But the Sounders’ lack of aggression also was strategic: They knew a draw would clinch the MLS Supporters’ Shield for best regular-season record, and as coach Sigi Schmid explained later: “We weren’t going to give up a goal today. That was our resolve.”
Just when it seemed as though the slogging would force the crowd of 57,673 to be content with a scoreless tie, Schmid decided to replace midfielder Brad Evans, slowed by a groin injury, with Pappa.
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“There was a sequence of three passes there where Brad got the ball and played the ball upfield, down the line,” said Schmid. “Every time he opted for a short, 10 or 15-yard pass. It showed me he wasn’t able to play that ball any more.”
Enter Pappa, whose fresh legs provided the Sounders with an adrenaline burst that was almost instant. Pappa’s left-footed shot from the left side of the box, off a perfectly timed pass from Obafemi Martins, gave his team a 1-0 lead in the 83rd minute.
The explosion smoke had barely cleared from CenturyLink Field when Pappa scored again in stoppage time. That play was pure hustle: Pappa saw the ball in front of Galaxy goaltender Jaime Penedo and made a dash for it, leaving Penedo on the ground. Pappa’s easy-does-it bounce kick put an exclamation point on a 2-0 victory that fulfilled the textbook definition of “winning ugly.”
Pappa began the game on the bench because of match-up concerns with star Galaxy forward Robbie Keane. Schmid suspected Keane wasn’t 100 percent, but Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena isn’t inclined to make injury information public.
Turns out Keane not only was a late scratch, he wasn’t even in uniform.
As for Pappa, the 26-year old from Guatamala City, Guatamala, learned he would be used in a limited role — if any — during a Friday conversation with Schmid.
“I’m the kind of guy who likes to play, for sure” Pappa said. “But I have to respect my coach’s decision. When I come in from the bench, I want to do my best.”
Despite his two-goal performance, Pappa has been given no assurances of starting the playoff opener against an opponent to be determined later this week. Schmid will continue to assemble lineups based on match-up hunches, but make no mistake: The coach believes Pappa is a playmaker who gives the Sounders a scoring threat — along with midfielder Lamar Neagle — on the wing.
“We got him,” Schmid said of Pappa, “because we felt he’s a guy who can play on the flank and cause some damage. You look at Pappa and Neagle, that’s 15 goals from our wide players. That’s pretty good. That’s always been a strength of ours in Seattle. We get goals from the wide guys. He fits.”
Pappa did more than merely fit in Saturday. He salvaged an uninspired scrum that, as forward Clint Dempsey put it, “wasn’t a great game for the fans to watch.
“It’s great that we won, and that we had a good result” added Dempsey. “But the fouling — stop, start, stop, start — didn’t give much validity to the game.”
Perhaps, but during the presentation of the Sounders’ first Supporters’ Shield, the jovial crowd was impervious to the fact it sat through 73 minutes of tedium.
“Obviously a tie would have given us the Shield,” said Schmid, “but to win the game like that just gives it a little more pizzazz. It’s sort of like having a cake with no icing. The win put the icing on the cake.”
More specifically, Marco Pappa’s energy put the icing on the cake.