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Player Spotlight

Seattle's Zach Scott Clawed His Way to MLS Pinnacle

Sounders defender Zach Scott probably won't outmaneuver many MLS opponents, but he won't be outworked by any of them either. Here's how the 34-year-old Maui native fought his way to the top.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
November 20, 2014
9:57 AM
HE'S AT AN AGE when many soccer players retire, he’s undersized for his position, and he has lost a step or two—and he wasn’t that fast to begin with. He was a walk-on in college, spent most of his athletic prime in the lower divisions of American soccer, and was once dropped by, of all things, an indoor soccer team.

Zach Scott is the first to admit that on many levels, he shouldn’t be where he is. But through a combination of hard work, tenacity, and a refusal to be told no, the Seattle Sounders defender finds himself, at 34 years of age, playing some of the best soccer of his career and starting for what might be the best team in Major League Soccer history.

Seattle begins its MLS Western Conference final series against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday (5pm ET, ESPN) and have a chance to become the first club to win the U.S. Open Cup, Supporters’ Shield, and MLS Cup in the same season.

The Sounders feature U.S. internationals Clint Dempsey, DeAndre Yedlin, and Brad Evans; former MLS Best XI players like Chad Marshall and Osvaldo Alonso; and international stars like Nigerian Obafemi Martins, Marco Papa of Guatemala, and Mexican World Cup veteran Gonzalo Pineda.

The team does not lack for piano players. But someone has to get the piano on the stage.

“I know sometimes a lot of our fans wonder why Zach is in the lineup,” admitted Sounders assistant coach Brian Schmetzer, who first coached Scott as a minor leaguer with the A-League and USL-1 Sounders. “When you make your team selection, you always have to have the right balance, the right mix of personalities so that when they all come together they form a good nucleus for a winning team. You need to have the right balance of all the skill guys with guys who aren’t afraid to do some of the dirty work.

“If I could explain Zach in a couple of sentences, he's not afraid of hard work, not afraid to do the little things that teams need to have done to win championships. And he’s tough as nails. I have seen him battle back from so much adversity, mentally, physically. Always being on the fringe and never really finding a starting role on the MLS club, all of those challenges that he’s had to face and overcome have made him such a strong character within the group and I think this team needs that mix to balance out all the talent we have.”

How Scott got to the precipice of American soccer history is a remarkable journey from under-recruited high school player in Hawaii to sitting the bench for a mid-major college program to playing seven seasons of lower division soccer to biding his time as a reserve for most of his tenure in MLS before grabbing a starting role in the Sounders defense ahead of a player who once started for a UEFA Champions League winner.

“I’m very aware of how fortunate I am and how easily all of this could have not ever happened,” said Scott, who started 16 games for the Sounders in the regular season and both of its playoff games against FC Dallas. “But I also know I work very hard and refused to quit. I’ve earned this but I have to keep earning it every day in training.”

Scott grew up on Maui, the scenic vacation destination that isn’t exactly a youth soccer hotbed, even by Hawaii’s then-modest standards. There aren’t many colleges with a recruiting budget to take trips to Hawaii but one of the few programs that looked to the islands was Gonzaga, the small division I college in eastern Washington. The Zags had an assistant coach, David Chattergy, who was from Hawaii and more likely to look there for players than other Division I coaches.

Scott had success at the high school level but wasn’t getting much in the way of college offers. Two years earlier Gonzaga had successfully recruited the Hawaii high school player of the year, a big forward from Oahu named Brian Ching.

“They kept looking in Hawaii for players and the assistant coach from Gonzaga told me that they didn’t see me as a Division I player but that they’d keep an eye on me and if I did well maybe I could transfer,” said Scott. “But by then I decided I really wanted to play Division I so I went to Gonzaga anyway and tried out for the team.”

After making the cut, he didn’t play much as a freshman and was a part-time starter the following two years.

“Instead of staying here and training he went back to the islands every summer,” said Gonzaga’s longtime coach, Einar Thorarinsson. “I asked him ‘How are you going to come back ready?’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry, coach, I’ll do it.' And when he came back he was always the fittest guy on the team. He didn’t have anybody to train with or play in Maui but he still came back fitter because it's just his drive.”

In 2001, his senior year, Scott helped the Zags make its first NCAA Tournament appearance and was named first-team All-West Coast Conference.

“He was just so driven to become the best he could,” said Thorarinsson. “He took it on himself to transform himself and then he realized he might be able to continue (playing soccer) after college."

Scott’s breakout season wasn’t enough to garner the attention of MLS scouts but buoyed by the success of his senior year he decided to try out for a couple of A-League (then the U.S. second division) teams in the Pacific Northwest.

“It was probably my senior year that I kind of decided to see how far this soccer thing goes and try out with some local teams. The first team I tried out for was the Portland Timbers,” said Scott. “But they said, ‘We don’t really view you as a pro player.’"

That led him to Seattle. It was the spring of 2002 and save for a brief stint in indoor soccer, he has called the Emerald City home ever since.

“The following week I tried out for the Sounders. They had a new coach in Brian Schmetzer and were building for the future. Honestly I don’t think I’d have made the team if Seattle wasn't building something new. It was a good opportunity for a young guy to be a part of something new.”

As a rookie Scott was reunited with Ching, who had been cut by the Galaxy following his rookie season in 2001.

“We got a couple years together at Gonzaga and we definitely have that Hawaii connection and there’s a special bond there. I was sorry to see him retire—it makes me feel old,” Scott said of his relationship with Ching. “He was hungry after he had moved down from the Galaxy and wanted to get back to MLS, had a tremendous year for us, and we won the A-League version of the Supporters’ Shield.”

That trophy is actually called the Commissioner’s Cup and Scott won two of them with the minor league Sounders as well as a pair of second division championships.

Still there were growing pains as he adjusted to pro soccer. Work rate and fitness had gotten him far but his technical limitations proved harder to overcome.

“My brother Andy used to coach in the MISL," Schmetzer said, "and he was coaching the Cleveland Crunch and back then a lot of the A-League guys, they’d play indoor in the winter to make extra money and stay fit. After Zach’s rookie year my brother called me and asked for some player recommendations and I sent them Zach and said, ‘You’ll love this kid because of how hard he works.' A few weeks into their season my brother calls me up and says, ‘I had to send him home. He just wasn’t technical enough on the ball, wasn’t clean enough.’

"Indoor—people don’t realize how good you have to be on the ball to play in those tight spaces. And Zach just didn’t have that yet. It was a little embarrassing for him but all that did was make Zach even more determined so that he came back and worked on it and his technical ability got better.”

Those technical limitations may explain why Scott saw several Sounders teammates move to MLS—Craig Waibel, Preston Burpo, Maykel Galindo, Cam Weaver, Leighton O’Brien and Taylor Graham—but no call ever came his way. When the Sounders made the jump to MLS in 2009 and several of his teammates got MLS offers and he didn’t, Scott and his wife Alana, also a Maui native, began to make post-soccer plans and started looking at a return home.

“That was the plan in 2009, when the team was transitioning (to MLS) and I was kind of unsure what the next step was going to be, not having a concrete positon on the team, and having two young kids and having to plan for the future. You can never assume too much,” Scott said. “I was putting as much effort as possible into making the (MLS) Sounders, but also being realistic. I was a longshot to make the team and we needed to see what the next step would be, which was to move back to Maui.”

All Scott had was an invite to training camp before the Sounders' first MLS season but, as he always had done before, he wowed his new coach, Sigi Schmid, with his work ethic.

"A lot of the USL (Sounders) guys were in camp and each week they made a round of cuts and unfortunately, a lot of friends were cut," Scott recalled. "A week before our first game, I kinda looked around, and all that was left were me and one other guy, Roger Levesque, and we realized we had a genuine shot (to make the team). It was incredible to feel that success because I’d worked so hard.”

Scott impressed Schmid to such an extent that when the Sounders played its first game in MLS, Scott lined up as the starting right back. But starting assignments became rare as a combination of the depth of the MLS roster and injuries limited him to 19 starts those first three seasons.

“He was actually pushing himself too hard in training,” said Schmetzer. “He was always the last guy off the field but his body broke down a few times. He had to learn to tone that down so he’d have more energy in games.”

In 2012 and 2013 Scott started 16 games each season but with the emergence of the speedy Yedlin last year, Scott lost his place at fullback and began seeing some time at centerback. Despite being just five-foot-eleven, which is a little small for a modern central defender, Scott made the transition smoothly.

“Earlier on in my career I enjoyed the freedom at outside back, the ability to get in the attack,” said Scott. “But in these latter years I realize I don’t cover as much ground as I once did and center back is definitely a position I enjoy.”

Still, Scott began the season buried on the depth chart. Marshall, a two-time MLS Defender of the Year whom Seattle acquired last winter, locked down one of the starting spots in central defense alongside Djimi Traore, who played 42 times for Liverpool when it won the 2005 UEFA Champions’ League.

“The first eight games of the season I wasn’t even making the gameday roster," Scott said. "I was watching from the stands and not traveling. It was definitely a low point. You’re a bit older and questioning if you can still do this.”

But Traore tore his adductors in late May, just as Yedlin was leaving for the World Cup, and suddenly there were openings on the backline and Scott seized the moment. Traore is healthy now but despite his Champions League winner’s medal it is Scott who has been in the starting XI. And yes, he’s aware how tenuous his place in the lineup is.

“I’m definitely one of the players that has a very short leash,” he said. “I don’t ever take for granted my position on this team. I get rewarded if I keep playing well in training and even that’s no guarantee.”

But until Schmid tells him otherwise, he’s going to be starting alongside Marshall, whom he credits for making his time as a center back easier. “Chad has been by far the best defender I’ve played with in my career. He’s a guy who is good at everything he does on the field,” said Scott, who thinks his partner should get another Defender of the Year honor.

“One hundred percent. There’s no doubt in my mind there’s not a better defender in this league.”

After four years in eastern Washington and 13 seasons in Seattle, Scott admits he feels less Hawaiian than he once did. Now? He's Cascadian. “I don’t know, at this point I feel like it’s half-and-half. We have three kids that were born and raised in Seattle. We have a lot of ties to Washington State,” he said. “We still have family in Maui and go visit yearly. But Seattle is home.”

And there is nothing more he’d like to bring to his adopted home than its first MLS Cup, and the treble, and with that the right to be called the best team in league history.

“We’ve been on an amazing run as a team," Scott said. "We’re very aware of what we’ve accomplished and very hungry to do more. We’ve put so much time as a team and have had a successful year and been able to win the trophies we’ve won and we don’t want to throw that away and leave a trophy on the table.

"Sigi always says, 'Let’s be the first to do something,’ and we want to be the first to win all three.”

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.

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