David Estrada looked perfectly comfortable playing forward in blue, something he is quite familiar with from his days at UCLA.
As dream debuts go, David Estrada's was just about perfect. OK, so Wednesday's start against Santos Laguna wasn't really a "debut" in the generally accepted sense of the word. Estrada has made a handful of appearances and even made a couple of starts for the Seattle Sounders during his first two seasons with the team. But this was the first time he had played forward in MLS, and for all intents and purposes, this is not the same player who Sounders fans had begun to assume was a SuperDraft bust.
Estrada, as you should know by now, scored the opening goal of the Sounders' 2-1 win over Santos Laguna in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal. The goal was the culmination of an impressive preseason in which Estrada rose from a player many expected to struggle just to make the final roster to one who was starting alongside Fredy Montero in one of the most important games in Sounders history.
Clearly, he made the most of his opportunity. Not only was it his first professional goal in a competitive match. Not only was it an important goal in a huge game. Not only was it front of nearly 25,000 fans. It was also against Oswaldo Sanchez, a genuine living legend where Estrada comes from.
"I didn’t even think about it until after the game when (my family) said ‘You scored against Oswaldo Sanchez,’" said Estrada, who was born in Mexico and raised in the predominantly hispanic town of Salinas, Calif. "For me, it was just scoring against Santos. But Oswaldo Sanchez is very big in Mexico. It was nice to score on him, too."
If this seemingly sudden rise to prominence has come as a shock, you aren't alone. Up until a few weeks ago -- when it became apparent that Estrada was likely to earn the start against Santos Laguna -- Estrada was pretty much an afterthought on this roster. When last we checked in with him, he seemed poised to become a younger, maybe more skilled version of Roger Levesque. After making his rookie debut as a wide midfielder, featuring often in reserve games as a bit of a CAM and earning his MLS playing time at right back in 2011, he had at least proven to be versatile.
Estrada admitted that even he didn't quite expect things to turn out this way. When asked what he would have thought a year ago if someone had told him how this season would start, the always humble Estrada had this quip: "I don’t think I can score from the right back position."
Little did we know that the Sounders had other plans for him. Sounders coach Sigi Schmid always thought Estrada was at his best during his college years when he played at forward, a position from which he scored 12 goals as a freshman. When we first talked about Estrada starting there, it was greeted with understandable skepticism. As good as Estrada may have been as a college striker, the reality was he was eventually moved to midfielder and hadn't played there regularly for about five years. That seemed of little concern to Schmid.
"I've always felt when I saw him play as a freshman at UCLA that he's a very talented, gifted forward and for some reason over the three years at UCLA he became a midfielder somehow," Schmid said on Wednesday. "We sort of drafted him with the thought that he could be a forward again and he wasn't comfortable with that anymore, so we ended up playing him in different places. But at the start of this season we decided let's let him go back up there again. I'm very happy for him because nobody works harder. Nobody is more committed than he is. Nobody wants it more."
Estrada may very well be the most humble player in all of MLS. He's honest, but also soft spoken. Even after scoring the biggest goal of his career, he says he's happy to retake his spot on the bench once Eddie Johnson is fit. He even used the phrase "Sigi knows best" without a hint of sarcasm when talking about how much playing time he should expect.
Maybe it was that desire just to fit in that originally prompted him to tell the Sounders coaching staff that he'd be more comfortable at midfielder, a position at which he could contribute immediately. Whatever the reason, he now says the move back to forward took very easily.
"I don’t think I needed any adjustment to be honest," Estrada said. "One thing I’m comfortable with is my running. So if I make their backs run, common sense says it’s going to open up space for Fredy. That’s something I can do well all game."
Estrada has clearly earned his spot on this team. Whether or not Wednesday's goal proves to be his career peak or merely the tip of the iceberg, we'll probably find out in the coming weeks and months. For now, we should expect to see Estrada running almost nonstop. If he does that, maybe he'll never have to wake up.