Last year was a good year for one of MLS’s premier franchises. The Sounders won yet another U.S. Open Cup and advanced past the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. While they could not vanquish their nemesis Galaxy in the regular season or playoffs (and were knocked out early by streaking RSL), the team again saw overwhelming fan support, some great moments on the pitch, and a fond farewell (on the pitch at least) to Kasey Keller.
Going into 2012, the team is looking at a three-front battle: in addition to defending their Open Cup title and trying to win that elusive MLS Cup, they face a tough road in the spring in the CCL. Last season, the team relied on its impressive depth to compete in all three competitions, but that depth has taken a hit this offseason. How they restock players will determine if they can take challenge for the Quadruple in 2012, or at least take home more than one trophy. Let’s play “Three Questions” with the Seattle Sounders:
1. Will the defense take a step back in 2012?
Center back is solid on this team, with Jeff Parke becoming an excellent MLS defender and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado being more than an adequate defender. Where the concern lies on this team is at the two full back spots and at keeper. Let’s start with the man between the pipes; Michael Gspurning comes over from Austria after he fell out of favor with his current club. Keller’s retirement meant more than losing one of the best keepers in MLS; it meant losing the heart and soul of the team, as well as a guy who knew how to boss a defense. Gspurning is good, but how his skills translate to MLS and how well he can work with his defenders will be telling for this team.
As for the full backs, Seattle lost James Riley and Tyson Wahl both to Montreal so will have to be replacing two important players. To do so, they signed Swedish international Adam Johansson to compete for one spot and took Marc Burch in the Re-entry draft for another. They join Leo Gonzalez and Michael Tetteh in the starting competition. While Johansson has proven ability (he has international caps), Burch is more of a spot/part-time starter at this stage. How the LB/RB battles shake out will be important going forward.
2. Is the depth still there?
As I mentioned above, with three competitions going this season Seattle again needs its depth to come through if it wants to compete in all three. That 2011 depth took a hit this offseason as they have lost some key role players. Besides the full backs mentioned above, the team has lost Erik Friberg (Malmo FF), Pat Noonan (LA Galaxy), and Nate Jaqua (New England Revolution). In the process, the team got younger and the salary cap shrank, but the team still needs some quality second stringers to fill in during the busy season. Otherwise, they may have to make a decision like the LA Galaxy to push aside a competition (maybe U.S. Open or Supporters Shield?) to focus their goals. Rumors are flying that they are looking overseas to fill gaps, trying to sign internationals like Christian Sivebaek.
3. What about Fernandez and Montero?
Two critical players are the subject of the rumor mill this offseason, and how these rumors are resolved will decide how this team will look in 2012. The first is Alvaro Fernandez, who in light of some interest from Palermo has expressed through his agent a desire to play in a bigger league. Or maybe, seeing teammate Mauro Rosales’ new contract, he simply wants to see the same kind of love (although he is already a designated player). Regardless, the team needs to figure out his situation quickly before their midfield is dealt a major blow by his departure.
The Montero rumor is more vague, simply that he has gotten interest from Europe, but the bigger question may be will Montero take the next step forward in his development. The young designated player has been streaky during his MLS career but when he’s hot, he simply racks up goals for Seattle. If he takes that next step to being a consistent scorer, Seattle will be hard to stop.