Sports

FW connection helping Sounders

By COLE COSGROVE

Sports editor

A pair of Federal Way natives is helping the Seattle Sounders professional soccer team to one of its best seasons ever.

The Sounders are in first place with a 16-2-0 record following a 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers Friday.

This Sunday, the Sounders play the inaugural game at the new Seahawks Stadium at 8 p.m. against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Playing key roles for the Sounders this season are forward Darren Sawatzky, a 1991 Thomas Jefferson High School graduate, and Leighton O’Brien, a 1995 Federal Way High School graduate.

“It’s awesome,” Sawatzky said. “We’re scoring goals. I can’t complain. Brian Schmetzer put together a fantastic group of players.”

Sawatzky, 29, and O’Brien, 25, were named A-League players of the week earlier this season. Both have spent time in the highest level of professional soccer in the United States: Major League Soccer — Sawatzky with the New England Revolution, Dallas Burn and Colorado Rapids and O’Brien with San Jose.

Just last week, O’Brien took time away from his captain duties with the Sounders, who play in the farm-system A-League, when he was called up to San Jose to play with the Earthquakes in their MLS game against the Dallas Burn. It is uncertain if he will be back with the Sounders for Sunday’s game.

Sawatzky is in his eighth year of professional soccer and O’Brien is playing in his fourth year.

While O’Brien would like to try to get on a permanent roster with an MLS team — made even more difficult after the league cut the number of teams from 12 to 10 this season — Sawatzky said he doesn’t have too high of aspirations of getting back to the MLS.

“If the right offer came along, I’d look at it,” Sawatzky said. “But I’m getting pretty well entrenched here in the Seattle area.”

Although they both grew up playing soccer in Federal Way, they never played together on the same team before this year.

“He was always one of those younger punk kids always hanging around,” Sawatzky said with a laugh.

Sawatzky is back with the Sounders this season after a stint last year playing with the Portland Timbers of the A-League. In 2000, he was a dominant scoring force for the Sounders with 16 goals and nine assists, but scored just six goals for Portland last season.

With Sawatzky in Portland last season, O’Brien stepped in and led the Sounders in scoring and was the team MVP with 29 points on 11 goals and seven assists. But the team finished a disappointing 13-12-1 and missed the A-League playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.

Since coming back to Seattle, Sawatzky has thrived in his role on the team as one of the league’s leading scorers with 10 goals.

O’Brien is ranked among the top players in assists.

The postseason is familiar territory for Sawatzky, who was in the playoffs as a student at Jefferson, then helped the Raiders get back to the playoffs this season in his first year as head coach.

For younger soccer players who attend Sounders games, Sawatzky said playing in the league is a goal they can work toward.

“It shows there’s something at the top if you keep working at it,” Sawatzky said. “It shows there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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