When Marco Pappa joined the Seattle Sounders it was with a few questions surrounding him. Yes, he'd shown that he could be an explosive offensive force, capable of absolutely brilliant moments. That's how he drew the interest of the Eredivisie's Heerenveen, one of the Netherlands' consistently decent teams.
There were some risks, though. Pappa's work ethic was sometimes questioned when he was with the Chicago Fire. He had scored 26 goals over parts of five MLS season, but he also needed the ball at his feet to be effective. Finding space, playing defense, doing the little things were not elements of his game that many people talked about.
And maybe that's part of why he never worked out in Holland. After playing 283 minutes his first year there, a new coach was unwilling to let him see the pitch during his second. Pappa asked out of his contract midway through that second year and Heerenveen seemed only too happy to oblige.
Which is how he ended up being available to the Sounders, who had moved to the No. 2 spot in the Allocation Order following a trade with Chivas USA that sent Mauro Rosales away and also brought Tristan Bowen to Seattle.
Pappa's Sounders tenure, as you probably know, did not start particularly well. In his second game, Pappa's poorly-executed tackle opened up the defense for Toronto FC's first goal and his errant back-pass set up the second. That performance landed him on the bench for two games.
But since then Pappa has shown himself a much more resilient player than he probably got credit for. Instead of sulking, Pappa took the demotion as a challenge and has earned his place back in the Sounders' starting XI. He's managed to maintain his creative streak while also adding some new wrinkles to his game, most notable an underrated ability to defend.
This past week's performance in two matches against the Portland Timbers may have been his best week yet. He came off the bench in the U.S. Open Cup and immediately injected some life into the Sounders, fighting off Diego Chara and ultimately drawing the match-turning red card and then putting it away with a well-taken right-footed blast. On Sunday, he was consistently in the middle of the Sounders most dangerous chances and again put the game away with a goal.
"I think he is continuing to grow with this team and as a player," Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said following Sunday's game. "You see him taking more responsibility on his shoulders in key moments.
Pappa's presence has proved especially vital given the recent availability of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. While there's no question that those two are the team's most vital offensive players, Pappa has been perfectly willing to assume a bigger role when one or both are out and do more of the workmanlike stuff when they are in.
Pappa often tracks back to help on defense, dutifully switches sides whenever needed and has even deferred to Gonzalo Pineda on many set pieces.
If Pappa's attitude was ever a problem, that doesn't seem to be the case now.
"I see his game continuing to grow and develop," Schmid said. "There's some good, good defensive moments he's given us on the flank, and that was never considered a trait of Marco's. He's on the field because he helps our attack, not because we want him to be a great left side defender, but he's got to do some of that work and has really grown as a player. He has found a mix and he knows how to find those pockets of space, which are really important."
Is Pappa's renewed form simply the product of playing against a lower level of competition than he was in the Netherlands? He certainly doesn't think so.
"That was something we talk about all the time," Pappa said when asked to compare the two leagues. "It's funny because they think MLS is easy. Honestly, I don't think it's that different. I'm sure the club I went to are maybe a little more technical. But MLS is also physical, technical and getting better. I see the way the league is growing up."
The league isn't the only thing growing, it appears.