TUKWILA, Wash.– When the Seattle Sounders signed Panamanian center back Roman Torres last summer, Brad Evans made no secret of his initial displeasure.
“I’d like to be comfortable in one position,” the team captain said, well aware he was about to find himself looking for a new one.
A Sounder since the club’s 2009 expansion season, Evans has always filled any role the club required. Perhaps most naturally a box-to-box central midfielder, the Arizona native at one point or another played just about every position on the field besides goalkeeper. He even stepped in at starting right back for the United States men’s national team, playing a critical role in qualification for the 2014 World Cup.
But before the 2015 MLS season, Evans sat down with then head coach Sigi Schmid and made a request: he wanted to pick a spot on the pitch and stick with it, to hone his craft at a single position. Schmid, then 61, had coached Evans, then 29, more or less continually since the U-20 World Cup in 2005.
The two devised a plan for a permanent switch to center back, which would not only prolong Evans’ career but secure his future with the club. Evans made the transition, and after some predictable early hiccups became an able central defender especially gifted at helping his team build out of the back.
Then came the summer transfer window, the first under new general manager Garth Lagerwey.
The club landed Torres. There was the usual cursory nod to open competition from the powers that be, but Torres — a star of the 2015 Gold Cup — was never signed to sit on the bench. A consummate professional, not to mention a loyal teammate, Evans dutifully accepted a return to utility midfielder despite his personal frustrations.
That return didn’t last long, though: Torres only played four matches before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament against the San Jose Earthquakes in mid-September. Evans quickly reclaimed his starting center back spot, a job he has ably held through the first 21 games of 2016.
But Torres returned to full practice this week, and Evans’ days at central defense are once again numbered.
“We’ve started that discussion,” interim head coach Brian Schmetzer said Thursday about a potential transition for Evans.
“Ultimately,” Evans said after practice on Thursday, “I’m a guy who can play multiple positions, and (Torres) is a guy who can play one position. So, I think I understand the situation at hand. Nothing will ever change my mindset going into a training session or a game. I think I’ve adapted to multiple positions fairly well. So at the end of the day when he’s ready to go I would imagine he’ll step in at center back, and I’ll ultimately have to compete for another position on the field, and that’s fine. It’s business, it’s soccer. We want to make our team stronger, and I’ll be the first one to tell you that all I want to do is win games. Where I fit into that equation, we’ll see when the time comes.”
Schmetzer has acknowledged that Torres probably isn’t ready to make the trip to Florida this weekend for the club’s Sunday evening tilt against Orlando City. After that, it’s hard to predict where Evans will find major minutes.
Tyrone Mears surely has right back locked down. Left back has probably been the wobbliest spot on the team this year, but Evans is right-footed and has never spent much time at the position. Midfield is beyond crowded: Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro, and Osvaldo Alonso are not losing their jobs. Would Schmetzer bench Cristian Roldan in the midst of a breakout sophomore campaign that has drawn the attention of the Guatemalan national team? Andreas Ivanschitz, Alvaro Fernandez, and Erik Friberg are well-compensated, starting-caliber midfielders who didn’t see the pitch in Sunday’s draw with the LA Galaxy (Friberg was nursing an ankle injury).
Ultimately, the Sounders are better thanks to both the presence of Torres and the versatility of Evans. When Seattle pairs Torres with towering veteran Chad Marshall, a team long criticized for being small in central defense (think Jeff Parke, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Patrick Ianni, and Zach Scott) suddenly sports one of the most physically imposing and rugged center back tandems in MLS. And Evans provides Schmetzer with that rarest of gifts in any league: a versatile player and a selfless leader who keeps his cool under the brightest of lights.
“I think his worth to this franchise over the years has been tremendous,” Schmetzer said about Evans on Thursday. “You might get a different opinion, that he’s never kind of settled (into a position). I’m cognizant of that. And that’s why good communication between the two of us is key. But I see a lot of value to (his versatility).”