Brad Evans is thriving in Seattle's competitive culture. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Stories of athlete egos dominate the global sports news. Coverage of Christiano Ronaldo's 'sadness' litters the landscape. For every description of great feats of skill and prowess, there are a dozen stories of how modern coaches need a degree in sports psychology to manage a locker room full of grown men. We've become so conditioned to this landscape that our minds leap automatically to wondering how the team will manage playing time instead of asking whether a new player will improve the skill level of the team. Instead of expecting Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson to find a way to thrive on the pitch together, we drown in ink about how they may or may not get along. The egocentric mindset wraps our collective brainstem like a kudzu vine, choking out any alternative view.
There is a kernel of truth in this viewpoint. Ego helps professional athletes surmount the incredible barriers to a career in sports. An athlete needs a healthy dose of pride. And sometimes putting that many egos into a small space creates sparks that erupt into a five alarm blaze. But it isn't the only option. And it certainly isn't healthy. We should expect more from our sports stars. The Seattle Sounders take a different approach. They have built a team culture that thrives on mentoring and in the process provides an alternative example of how a team that keeps their egos in balance can build into a championship environment.
Everywhere you turn, another Sounders story of mentorship pops up. Wednesday, Dave wrote about how Eddie Johnson learned the craft of heading the ball from Brian McBride and how EJ is now paying that forward to the Sounders Academy players. Last week Josh Mayers mentioned in passing that EJ had spoken to people on the team and throughout the industry about how he can improve his relationship to the public and the media. In the wake of the Sounders' Coaching Clinic, Sigi spoke at length about the importance of learning how to coach by watching how coaches train players. He talked passionately about his personal experiences and why he holds open practices. Eidur Gudjohnsen spoke at length in Spanish with Fredy Montero before a practice during his recent trial about the craft of being a forward. Over and over again the developmental bent of the Seattle Sounders seeps into the conversation.
The philosophy suits up on game day as well. Fredy Montero and Osvaldo Alonso continue to elevate the level of their game with each year. Fredy is a much more complete player in 2012 than he was even a year ago. He held up the ball against FC Dallas. He launched a pin point left footed cross from the wings to EJ for the game winner against Chivas USA. He still makes the brilliant moves, but now he supports in ways we only saw glimpses of in previous campaigns. Ozzie no longer just destroys. He now helps the team launch the counter attack. Zach Scott quietly had his best offensive game in a Sounders uniform against Chivas. Think for a moment about how much Zach has grown as a player in the past two years. Honestly look at how his game has improved just this year. Now think about the transformation of David Estrada's game. Look at what has happened to Patrick Ianni after he spent the off season working with a sports psychologist. And we haven't even begun to talk about what Brad Evans has done since the arrival of Christian Tiffert.
Tiffert has an ankle injury and the team may decide to rest him Saturday. Throughout the Sounders web community the debate over who will take his place on the pitch ratchets up the angst. Some fans are arguing that they would rather see Evans play the wings because he has suddenly become a much better winger in the past month. I smile each time I see that statement thinking back to how Brad Evans played wing just a year ago. If Brad Evans suits up in Portland as the team's Box-to-Box Midfielder, I expect that we will see something dramatically different than anything we have seen from him in the past. Because Brad Evans is a student of the game. He's a sponge. It's clear that he will continue his career as a coach one day. He has been watching Christian Tiffert play and is learning. Tiffert's game is not based on prodigious physical skills. It's based on knowledge and understanding. Sigi repeatedly talks about how he plays the game simply. And Brad Evans watches.
Too often as fans we watch this game with an expectation that veteran players have static skill sets. Or that young players won't grow. But the history of the MLS Sounders demonstrates that this does not have to be the case. At the beginning of the season casual fans of the league were looking at the stat sheet and saying that Fredy Montero was struggling. He wasn't struggling. He was playing a more complete game. When asked if he was worried about EJ breaking his annual scoring record last weekend, he said that when he was the primary threat the team didn't win the championship. Now maybe they will. This is the product of the team's culture.
MLS is growing. The cap this year is higher than last. It might not be as high as we want or grow as quickly as we like. But it is growing. With this growth comes an increase in the caliber of the individual players and the opposition. Competition rules, and players who rest on their laurels see their careers flash before their eyes. Some will look at this competition as purely a battle of dominance. But the Sounders realize that it is an opportunity to elevate everyone's game. Bringing in a veteran such as Eidur Gudjohnsen, Mauro Rosales or Christian Tiffert creates opportunities for everyone to grow. Not every player gets it. But for players like Andy Rose, Brad Evans, David Estrada, Alex Caskey, Fredy Montero, Eddie Johnson and the rest of the Sounders roster, the opportunity for growth is just across the pitch waiting to be asked a question. It's important that we as Sounders fans adapt to this landscape as well. It is another example of what it means to wear a Sounders uniform. Another example of what is expected. You are a Sounder and class is in session.