Coach Sigi Schmid had wrapped up his postgame press conference Saturday when it was announced that the goal the Sounders scored to beat Kansas City was a milestone: Seattle’s first stoppage-time game winner since the franchise made its debut last spring.
It was a strange afternoon at Qwest Field. Aside from a succession of collisions – the home team, by Schmid’s estimation, gave much more blood than it drew – nothing much happened between the Sounders and the Wizards for 92 minutes. Then a stunning breakaway off a throw-in pass broke the ice. Ten seconds later, the Sounders – either too fired up after taking the lead or too groggy to hustle back on defense – almost gave the goal back.
History, in any case, was made. Not only was Michael Fucito’s score the Sounders’ first stoppage-time winner, it represented the first goal in the MSL career of a Harvard-educated reserve whose practice habits have turned him into a favorite among his teammates.
“If the players had taken a vote on who we wanted to score that goal,” midfielder Peter Vagenas said, “we would’ve voted for Michael, because of the way he busts his butt in practice. It’s nice to see a guy like that rewarded.”
While the admiration the Sounders hold for Fucito and his work ethic is obvious, the team would’ve been no less thrilled had, say, Hugh Hefner contributed the game-winner after strolling onto the pitch in his pajamas and bathrobe.
Sustaining a Qwest Field offensive drought that began during the second half of the March 25 opener, the Sounders’ scoring opportunities through regulation time on Saturday could be counted on one hand.
With the Sounders desperate for a high-energy booster shot, Schmid turned to his bench, replacing forward Pat Noonan with Brad Evans in the 70th minute, followed by Fucito’s substitution for Steve Zakuani in the 85th minute. And though fresh legs were a primary reason for the changes, what ultimately galvanized the Sounders was the subs’ fresh perspective.
“We’d been told, as we watched the video in preparation for the game, to stretch their defense on throw-ins,” said Fucito.
“That’s what I did. Once the ball was there, I guess instincts just took over.”
“He’s a meaty guy and he’s quick,” Evans said of Fucito. “It’s tough to keep a hold of him. What I saw was he checked away and his defender looked. By the time the defender looked back, the ball already was in play and Mike was gone. It’s a split-second thing that changes a game. Hats off to him for a great run and an awesome finish.”
Fucito’s point-blank chance in front of Wizards goalie Jimmy Nielsen was not unlike a wide receiver, alone in the end zone, awaiting a perfectly thrown spiral: The play is so easy it can be difficult.
But Fucito didn’t submit to the temptation of over-thinking the situation.
“He took a look over his shoulder and hit it. He didn’t take extra touches,” said Schmid. “Michael’s got a never-say-die attitude you need on the field. Sometimes you can die with beauty, and sometimes you can succeed with simplicity.”
A former fourth-round draft choice, Fucito struggled with a foot injury last year and was waived. Upon finishing work toward his Harvard psychology degree, Fucito returned to the Sounders last summer after signing a developmental contract. And while he figured to accumulate playing time as the 2010 season progressed, he didn’t figure to provide an otherwise forgettable game with a storybook ending.
“A game like this will help his confidence, because everybody needs confidence,” said Vagenas. “Kudos to Sigi for believing in him.”
As Saturday’s improbable catalyst was exchanging hugs and acknowledging the crowd after the 1-0 victory, forward Freddie Ljunberg approached Fucito and offered the kind of advice only privy to an internationally recognized star.
“I told Mike to feel the moment – feel the happiness, and the glory,” said Ljunberg. “What happened today, he deserves more than anyone.”
A beautiful game, it wasn’t. But then Evans made eye contact with Fucito on a throw in, and 92 minutes of plodding play, interrupted by the medics tending to the occasional skull-banging, were forgotten thanks to a split-second reaction that Michael Fucito will treasure for the rest of his life.
A beautiful game, it was.