Name: Seattle Sounders
Coach: Sigi Schmid
Last Year: 18-7-9, 2nd Western Conference, 2nd Overall
Are Sounders fans too demanding? In its current iteration, the club is entering its fourth MLS season and has made three consecutive conference semifinals. They own the U.S. Open Cup. They have set attendance records that will be hard to surpass, and they have become the de facto face of MLS because of all of this. Yet the team has a major road block that it just cannot overcome: the Los Angeles Galaxy. The current MLS champs are blocking their ascent to the top of the league and until the Sounders can beat LA and win the MLS Cup, their seasons will feel unfulfilled.
This offseason, the team went for broke. Rather than simply building up, the team took some gambles designed to keep up with the Galaxy. While not gutting their roster, some moves were made with an eye on the next two years and not the next five. Part of this is their participation in the CONCACAF Champions League but undoubtedly the franchise wants the MLS Cup. Besides that trophy, however, the franchise is the envy of the league with the type of fan support, facilities, staff, and attitude that any team would want. Isn’t that enough?
Coaching Staff and Front Office: Sigi Schmid has reached the point in his career that when he makes a controversial acquisition, he always receives the benefit of the doubt (see Eddie Johnson below). Schmid is one of the best head coaches in the league, a statement that can be easily backed up since he is the winningest MLS coach ever. Working with the front office, the team consistently juggles the salary cap while still paying top-flight players and bringing up young talent.
Additions: Let’s start with the most recent one and possibly the biggest one. Eddie Johnson comes over via trade from Montreal to boost the Seattle attack. Johnson returns to MLS after failing to latch on in Europe with rumors of dogging his tryouts following him. A consistent scorer is what Seattle needs, so EJ needs to return to his previous dominant ways to justify this acquisition.
The most important new acquisition has to be the replacement for the team’s heart and keeper, Michael Gspurning. The Austrian premier league veteran has no fear of replacing the legend Kasey Keller and is looking forward to playing in Seattle. If for any reason Gspurning falters or is injured, the team recently signed Andrew Weber who of the four keepers currently on Seattle’s roster is the only one with any MLS experience. To assist the keepers, the Sounders signed Swedish international Adam Johansson and MLS veteran Marc Burch to play fullback. Johnsson could be the best signing of the offseason by any team.
Two additions to the midfield will give the team some intriguing options. Forward/winger Cordell Cato was signed in the offseason as more of a depth/Open Cup player. The 19 year old is a youth international for Trinidad & Tobago and presents some promise for the future. A player who will provide a more immediate impact is Danish midfielder Christian Sivebaek who will be asked to support the attack while chipping in the occasional goal.
Subtractions: In exchange for EJ the club sent F Mike Fucito and M Lamar Neagle to Montreal, two players that are not superstars but were an example of why Seattle competed well in multiple competitions: good solid depth by players on the cusp of taking that next step. Neither loss is the type the redefines a team but both will be missed for the valuable depth they gave. Fucito was not the only forward to leave this offseason as Nate Jaqua was picked up in the Re-Entry draft by the Revs and Pat Noonan was taken in that same draft by the Galaxy. Erik Friberg’s departure also dents the Sounders’ offense.
Starting Lineup: As mentioned, newcomer Gspurning replaces Kasey Keller in goal and has quite a task ahead of him. Not helping matters is the number of new faces on the backline. At right back will likely be newcomer Adam Johnsson, according to his preseason reps, and Leo Gonzalez will man the left side with some competition from Marc Burch. In the center will be Jeff Parke and all-name teamer Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, who while not the most dominant centerback pairing in the league are two very good defenders. If anyone falters, rookie Andrew Duran could push his way into the first team.
The midfield looks to be one of the best in MLS and it starts with Mauro Rosales. The Argentine looks like a yearly MVP candidate and will spearhead the Sounders attack from the midfield. Another danger from the outside is designated player Alvaro Fernandez who if not for his other talented teammates would star in this midfield. Pushing for minutes will be returners Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso, two players that would start every minute for almost any other MLS team but will rotate during Seattle’s three competitions. The two wild cards in the midfield are Steve Zakuani and Christian Sivebaek. Zakuani looked like an MVP last season before breaking his leg and while reports suggest he is healthy again, it will be interesting to see how healthy he is when he takes the pitch in a competitive match. As for Sivebaek, the 23 year old is talented and may be the best super-sub in MLS come September.
Up front it is simple: Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson. Montero has the chance to become an elite MLS player but needs to add a little consistency to his game. Maybe playing next to Johnson will settle him, but once Montero stops disappearing for games he takes Seattle to a new level. If these two falter, there is a mix of veteran (hello O’Brian White!) and young players that will contribute but cannot be counted on to be elite in 2012.
Player to Watch: Gspurning will be the man under the microscope for two reasons: he is replacing a legend and he is the biggest unknown quantity on this team. Every other part of the field is pretty settled, at least on the first team level, except for the keeper. How he deals with being not-Kasey Keller and facing the likes of Edson Buddle, Kris Boyd, and Brek Shea will be the key to Seattle’s season.
Best Case Scenario: The team gels quickly and once the Galaxy stars go abroad for their tournaments, Seattle passes LA in the standings. May 2nd is a watershed day in Seattle history as the team beats LA at home and pushes the monkey off their back. EJ reverts to his previous MLS form, Gspurning is a great keeper, the team keeps healthy and Zakuani gives Seattle three MVP candidates in the midfield. Led by Golden Boot winner Fredy Montero, the Sounders beat LA in a game journalists call the best MLS game ever in the Western Conference finals and with a victory over DC United in the MLS Cup, win a historic treble.
Worst Case Scenario: Trying to win in three competitions is too much for a team whose depth took a major hit this offseason. Seattle loses in the U.S. Open Cup and falls into a battle for one of the final two playoff spots in the West. They get in but bow out quickly, just like they did in the CONCACAF Champions League. Eddie Johnson fails to support Montero and Montero begins to actively look overseas. Injuries impact the midfield and Schmid declares the current situation unacceptable, ushering in a major retooling in the offseason. Major publications – including Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, and National Geographic – rank Portland ahead of Seattle in their rankings of best soccer cities and/or cities to experience a superb game day atmosphere.
Prediction: Even Portland Timbers fans acknowledge that Seattle’s MLS schedule is one of the “easiest” in MLS, so that is a distinct advantage. There are serious concerns about depth, especially at forward, but this is too talented of a team to not challenge for an MLS Cup. I expect the Sounders to again finish second in the West and add at least one trophy to their trophy case.