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Brad Evans: Unfairly maligned

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Brad Evans' best work has come in the areas that aren't always immediately obvious.
Brad Evans' best work has come in the areas that aren't always immediately obvious.

Brad Evans has been on quite a roller-coaster ride during the season's first seven games.

It started off great when he scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal in the first match of the season. Over the next two weeks, though, his season took a dramatic turn for the worst when his marks scored each of the opponents' next three goals -- essentially accounting for a three-point swing.

He was relieved of starting duties in the Sounders' next game, but earned a bit of redemption anyway by getting the assist on Mike Fucito's stoppage-time game winner.

The next three games have been far less dramatic in terms of ups and downs -- he hasn't directly figured in any of the scoring. Still, the spotlight remains as focused upon him as ever. With the Sounders playing what has generally been considered their best soccer of the season, Evans' lack of production in relationship to his playing time and position would seem to be one area where the team stands to improve.

I have been one of the people coming to Evans' defense. After taking a closer look at Saturday's film, I can tell you that I get why people are growing inpatient, but honestly believe that the good continues to far outweigh the bad.  

The coaches seem to agree with my assessment. No offensive player has logged more minutes than Evans' 536, he has started all but one match and is one of six Sounders to have played in all seven contests.

"He did what was expected of him," Sounders assistant coach Ezra Hendrickson said in his assessment of Evans' play in Saturday's match. "From a technical standpoint, maybe he was a little bit anxious, but that's going to come. It was his first time playing that role (right wing). Overall, I thought he did really well."

Obviously, I understand that Hendrickson is not about to throw Evans under the bus, especially when talking to someone who he has never met.

That being said, he made it pretty clear that the coaching staff is looking for players that are versatile and willing to allow their roles within the team to evolve. Evans, perhaps more than any other player, has certainly been willing to do that. In just seven games, Evans has been a central midfielder, a target forward and an attacking winger. Going back to his time with the U.S. National Team, he has even played on the backline.

"Brad is very mobile," Hendrickson said. "Whether he's playing in the middle, whether he's playing on the wing, he's going to give you movement. On the wing, he's really able to use that mobility that he has. Fredy (Montero) and Brad were able to interchange (on Saturday). It doesn't matter who's playing what spot at what time. We need total mobility from all our players and need to have the ability to interchange." 

While that kind of interchangeability was always at a premium in the Sounders' system, it may be even more important as the team switches from what was nominally a 4-2-3-1 to what could accurately be depicted as a 4-2-1-3. With more players pushing farther into the other team's side of the field, the Sounders are potentially more exposed to an attacking wing-type player.

That means the players pushing forward will have to be even more willing to not only pressure the backs as they try to move the ball out of danger, but also must take some responsibility to help on the defensive side of the field.

Evans seems most suited to able to handle those kind of responsibilities.

A perfect example of that came in the seventh minute of Saturday's game. 

With Evans positioned all the way up to the edge of the penalty area, midfielder Peter Vagenas makes perhaps his only mistake of the match, floating a long pass from the left wing to the center of the field. The ball is intercepted by the Crew, and suddenly the action is moving in the opposite direction with Guillermo Barros Schelloto controlling the attack from the middle of the field. Schelloto plays the ball forward and to his right, before eventually getting it back. He then sees left back Danny O'Rourke streaking toward the goal and sends a dangerous pass his way. At the time, no one is between O'Rourke and the goal.

Just before O'Rourke is able to get a touch, though, Evans flies into the passing lane and deflects the ball to James Riley, who is able to tap it to Kasey Keller. 

The entire sequence takes about 11 seconds, meaning Evans had to change directions and run about 250 feet at a near sprint in order to make the play. 

That's also the kind of box-to-box play that is expected of midfielders. At least for the immediate future, Evans' role appears to be more of a forward, meaning that on some level he's going to have to produce on the offensive end.

None of the shots Evans missed over the past two weeks could be clearly classified as sitters, so it's probably forgivable that he didn't score on any of those.

What seems to have attracted the ire of some is the perceived lack of killer-instinct that we all want to see in strikers. One such example came in the 35th minute of Saturday's match. Freddie Ljungberg gets the ball in space and spots Evans making a seemingly unimpeded run toward the goal, and slides a pass his way. Evans gathers the ball at the edge of the penalty area with what looks to be a clear shooting lane. Instead of shooting it, though, he passes the ball back to Montero, who fails in an attempt to chip the ball over the defender.

Upon closer and repeated looks, I'm now convinced Evans actually made the smart play. While it may have seemed that he had a clear shooting lane, in reality he had a defender between him and the keeper. More importantly, the keeper had fully committed to Evans. In passing to Montero, Evans appears to realize that Montero is in a better position to beat the keeper. Only a perfectly executed sliding challenge -- from a defender who was behind the play -- keeps the ball from getting on goal.

Now, it could certainly be argued that a better pass from Evans would have allowed Montero to take a quicker shot, and perhaps not give the defender time to make the challenge, but I think it falls more into the excusable range in a similar way as his misses do.

None of this is to suggest that Evans' doubters are without evidence. I counted at least eight giveaways in Saturday's game -- meaning he was directly dispossessed of the ball or a pass he made directly or indirectly led to a change in possession -- and he was an unfulfilling 2-for-7 on 50/50 balls. By the time he was pulled in favor of Sanna Nyassi in the second half, Evans' effectiveness had obviously started to wane as the strain of three games in 10 days had started to take its toll.

I also counted at least seven other occasions where he made strong runs into the box, kept plays alive or made heady defensive plays. The vast majority of his passes -- 19 of 23 -- were on point. Those kind of contributions can't simply be overlooked.

Evans, for his part, strikes me as a pretty self-aware individual. Just look at the frustration he feels after missing a shot off a beautiful cross from Ljungberg in the 36th minute. There's just no avoiding the fact that the breaks haven't been going his way this year -- not so unlike the team at large.

"The idea that we're playing better soccer has motivated everybody," Evans said on Monday. "Moving forward and seeing how successful we were this weekend, once we get two or three at home, I think it's game over." 

 

 Evans, it would seem, is as good a candidate as any to be the player that sparks that turnaround.