Lamar Neagle is a lightning rod figure around these parts, you may have noticed. At one point last year, I felt compelled to break down every one of his goals and determine if he was a "poacher." By the end of last year, there were many convinced that Neagle could only be effective as a forward and that using him as a wide mid was pointless. We've spent countless megabytes debating if he's too error prone or simply direct.
That he happens to be a local product only serves to shroud the debate.
But maybe it's time to just appreciate Neagle for what he is: A player with an impressive ability to find the back of the net and set up others but who's also prone to making turnovers and sometimes losing his man on defense. No, he's not perfect, but he has found a place on this team and right now at least, he's playing just about as well as anyone.
The numbers suggest as much, too. Over the past two seasons, Neagle has 16 goals and 13 assists. That puts him in pretty rarefied air, as there are fewer than 20 players in MLS who can boast of better numbers during that time.
Here's the 14 players I could confirm definitely had better numbers and two more with the same total.
There are nine Designated Players, last year's MVP, a contender for this year's honor and a few other notable names. It's definitely heady company. What's equally impressive is some of the players who aren't on it. Guys like Graham Zusi, Will Bruin, Darlington Nagbe, Eddie Johnson and Tim Cahill.
I don't know that Neagle is more valuable than everyone on this list, but he's clearly comparably productive as a lot of them. Sure, Neagle is benefitting from playing with some extremely talented players, but he's taking advantage of it, too. In fact, if I had to pick one player on the Sounders roster to improve their production next season, I'd probably pick Neagle.
Neagle is in the midst of his best run of form of his career, and it doesn't strike me as particularly unsustainable. Over the past six games, Neagle has scored or assisted in every game, picking up three goals and four assists in the process.
It's probably no coincidence that this run of form came immediately on the heels of Neagle coming off the bench for three games. The game that preceded Neagle's benching was that 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake, the one where replays seems to show him allowing Joao Plata to get an open look at a header that proved to be the game winner.
Neagle hadn't been having a bad season up to that point -- he was on five goals and five assists -- but he hadn't really enjoyed any moments of brilliance, either. Effective? Sure, those numbers don't lie. But there was never a point at which you said to yourself "Lamar Neagle is the kind of player who should be starting for a Supporters' Shield contender." To the contrary, despite his production and local-boy status, there was a growing sense among certain a segment of Sounders fans that maybe it was time to move on.
These last six games, though, Neagle has been on a different level. There are the obvious moments, the two 30-yard strikes that he hit, one off his left foot and the other off his right. But there have been more subtle moments, too, like the run he made up the left sideline against Chivas USA where he spun his defender around and then put in a deadly cross that really should have been finished. Sure, it was immediately by a counter-attack that turned into a goal, but it was a great play and hardly his fault that the Sounders got caught. His run to set up Obafemi Martins' second goal against the Rapids was of similar vintage.
There was also the criminally uncounted goal against the Rapids where Neagle used the bottom of his boot to flick Osvaldo Alonso's cross past Clint Irwin.
Early in the year, Neagle often seemed almost intimidated by the quality of his teammates. When he'd fail to finish opportunity or miss a run Martins or Clint Dempsey made, he seemed reluctant to make eye contact. But over the past couple months, that's gone. Neagle is carrying himself with a confidence that just didn't seem to be there before. He's acting like he belongs. I'm enjoying it.