Tuesday, July 10, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Notebook: O'Brien tempers anger and converts it to goals

Special to The Seattle Times

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When midfielder Leighton O'Brien has his emotions in check, Seattle Sounders Coach Bernie James feels he has one of the top soccer talents around.

O'Brien sometimes wants to win so badly that he takes out his frustration on the referees. As the season grows older, the 25-year-old has been channeling his anger into his kicks. The maturation process is paying off in the form of 12 points on five goals and two assists for the 5-foot-10, 160-pounder as the Sounders (11-6-1 overall) keep improving.

"I think Leighton's a wonderful player," James said of the Sounders' emerging star, who has taken over offensively since Seattle lost its top three scorers from last year's 19-9-3 team. "He has all the skills and all the talent to play in MLS (Major League Soccer) or anywhere else he wants, but his temper gets the better of him sometimes. Other than that, he's got great talent. He's always a threat to score and he's great on free kicks and he runs forward really well."

The fiery O'Brien, the Irish-born son of Fran O'Brien, former Sounders and Tacoma Stars player, contained his temper fairly well until he received a red card on the way off the field after a 5-2 loss at Milwaukee on June 30. O'Brien's one-game suspension, originally scheduled for Sunday against the same Rampage club, was appealed successfully and is under review by A-League officials. He played and scored both goals in Sunday's 2-1 win over Milwaukee in Seattle.

O'Brien's fate is not known, but if the league decides to take action for his unsportsmanlike behavior following the loss in Milwaukee, he could be forced to sit out Friday's home game against Portland.

"When he gets control of that part of his game, there's nothing stopping him," James said. "I don't like that behavior. But when you feel like you're getting cheated, it's darn hard to control yourself."

O'Brien might remind Sounders fans of the similarly dark-haired midfielder Andrew Gregor, who racked up 21 points with the 2000 Sounders before signing with the Kansas City Wizards of MLS this season. Gregor boomed many long free kicks into the goal for Seattle a year ago, and O'Brien is gaining that reputation.

"I just focus on playing a game, and if the goals and assists come, then they come," said O'Brien, the third-year pro who began his career with the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS after he graduated from the University of San Diego in 1999.

Coincidentally, O'Brien's rookie season suffered a setback when the Earthquakes played an exhibition game against the Sounders in '99. He rolled his ankle in the first 15 minutes of the game at Renton Stadium that year, and the injury forced him to miss almost eight weeks of action. San Jose didn't re-sign him, so O'Brien signed with the San Diego Flash of the A-League and played as a starter for all of the 2000 season.

"If I get back to the MLS, I'll be happy, but if it doesn't then it's not the end of world," O'Brien said. "Usually you get another shot, though."

Seattle traded or released its top two forwards from a year ago, mainly for salary reasons, and it took the 2001 team's forwards a while to find the net. After trading Greg Howes, 2000 A-League Rookie of the Year, to Portland and releasing Darren Sawatzky, the Sounders needed someone like O'Brien to step up and provide offense. Howes tallied 45 points to rank second in the league and Sawatzky, who signed as a free agent with Portland in March, had 41 for third-best in the A-League.

James, who played seven years in Seattle and 22 pro seasons overall, knows a little about intense play. An aggressive defender, James received three ejections in his seven campaigns with the Sounders and committed the franchise's third-highest total of fouls.

"Bernie was my idol, and I grew up watching him," O'Brien said, with a sly grin, referring to James' well-known on-field intensity and hard-nosed attitude. "(The temper) is also about being competitive and being into the game."

Select seek Open Cup upset

The Sounders Select Men attempt to make U.S. soccer history when they attempt to knock off the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS in the third round of the 88th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament tomorrow.

If the Select squad (14-4 overall) beats L.A. in the 7:30 p.m. game at Titan Stadium in Fullerton, Calif., it would go down as one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. The Open Cup is open to all amateur and professional teams affiliated with the U.S. Soccer Federation (USF).

"We don't expect to go in and win, but if we play well, we can win," said Select goalkeeper Carlos Castellanos, who grew up 45 minutes from Titan Stadium in Mission Hills, Calif. "We don't expect to go in and slay the giant. But if we play 100 percent and if the ball bounces our way, we actually know we can win the game."

The Sounders Select beat Olympia-Stamford 4-1 in its first-round Open Cup game on June 8, then knocked off the Dallas Burn 3-2 in overtime on June 27.

Castellanos was the third goalkeeper on the Sounders' A-League team until he asked to be demoted to the Select squad to get playing time eight games ago. Little did he know he was getting on the soccer ride of his life.

"We'd love to keep this Open Cup run going," he said.


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