By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE – It was a special night here in many ways.
The U.S. Men’s National Team, surrounded by doubt as recently as mid-March, arrived riding a string of impressive results and almost casually dismissed Panama to seize first place in CONCACAF’s final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
And it did so in front of more than 40,000 bouncing, chanting, almost deliriously joyful fans in a far-flung, soccer-loving corner of the country it hadn’t visited for a World Cup qualifier in almost 40 years.
Compelling stories abounded after a humming performance many quickly deemed the most impressive of the Jurgen Klinsmann era.
But perhaps none cherished the night more than Seattle Sounders Brad Evans and Eddie Johnson, donning their nation’s jersey and earning starts in the building that has done so much for each of their careers, before the fans that have given them each so much support.
“From warm-ups till thanking the crowd after the game, it was absolutely nuts,” said Evans, who started his second consecutive qualifier at right back for a team short a few healthy and rested defenders.
Evans, a utility player most naturally suited to central midfield, struggled at times in the first half to contain Panama’s speedy Alberto Quintero, but generally recovered well enough and in the end went 90 minutes in a shutout victory under the bright lights that is World Cup qualifying.
His contributions certainly aren’t going unnoticed by Klinsmann.
“I think Brad Evans…is making a very strong case for himself in our group, playing in that role,” Klinsmann said.
“I think the chemistry’s going well,” said Evans, snatched away from the Columbus Crew in the Sounders’ 2008 Expansion Draft. “I think we’re playing well as a unit. Most importantly, we’ve got each other’s backs. We respect each other enough to know that we’re going to make mistakes. It’s up to each other to kind of lift each other up and keep going when mistakes happen. I think that lies more in my case, not having played that position much. It’s a constant stream of information from the guys behind me, to the side, and even Eddie tonight gave me information.”
As if getting the start at CenturyLink Field weren’t enough, Johnson went ahead and scored a goal, putting the U.S. up 2-0 barely 10 minutes after the half, salting away victory, and unleashing a roar from the crowd that shook the building locals call the Clink from the temporary turf all the way up to the press box.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Johnson, who has rebooted his career since joining the Sounders before last season. “To play in the U.S. jersey, first of all, is an honor. But to wear it in front of the fans I play in front of week-in and week-out? I couldn’t have asked for a better feeling after that goal.”
“For him to turn it on in the second half,” said Evans, “and still have that energy and that pace, that endurance to get in behind and score that goal, was something special. And to do it in front of your home crowd, he’ll remember that one forever.”
“I’m just so happy for him,” Evans added. “He put in the work tonight, offensively and defensively. He helped me out so much.”
Of course, no small part of what made the night so special for the pair was simply the chance to show off their fans to their teammates.
“Everybody’s so impressed,” said Evans, “and it’s really gratifying for them to be outspoken about it and say, ‘You guys have something special here.'”
“I’ve been telling the guys all week, ‘Wait till game day, watch how the fans are,'” added Johnson. “They got a taste of it in the Vancouver game [against the Sounders on Saturday], but that’s all the boys have been talking about after the game: the crowd and—not saying any names, but—how they’d love to play in Seattle one day. [They’re] saying, ‘Eddie, you’re lucky to play in front of such great fans, with such great passion.’ They all say it’s a European atmosphere. So that’s good to hear, and to play here week-in, week-out, I’m grateful.”