[MLS]No matter what Seattle coach Sigi Schmid thought his team would look like a month or so into the season he would have been wrong. The club severed ties with DP Blaise Nkufo just hours before the March 15 season opener, and that shakeup turned out to be just a prelude to the real upheaval.
Only a few days after a brutal tackle sidelined winger Steve Zakuani with a fractured fibula and tibia, a blood clot was detected in the calf of striker O’Brian White, who is tied with Zakuani for the team lead in goals with two. Zakuani could miss the entire season, and White’s status is completely up in the air.
“It’s something that just happened very suddenly,” says Schmid of White, acquired from Toronto in an offseason trade. “He didn’t feel well Tuesday night, we had him come in on Wednesday, and that’s when they discovered it. He was having off and on numbness, and a little bit of calf pain on that side.
“The surgery was successful with the clot. The key is now to figure what caused it and that’s what we’re in the process of doing.”
Schmid is also trying to figure out lineups and formations without Zakuani and White. His options are still plentiful, as along with White, Seattle has acquired midfielders Mauro Rosales and Erik Friberg to supplement Alvaro Fernandez, Fredy Montero and Nate Jaqua.
Montero has come back from wrist surgery to reclaim his spot as offensive catalyst, and with Nkufo gone and White sidelined, the process of mending a hip injury that has impaired Jaqua is crucial.
“Once I get going, the hip’s moving well,” says Jaqua, who has yet to start a game and played 102 minutes without scoring. Last year, he played only 15 league games (three starts) with no goals and three assists. “It’s still something I’ve got to watch, it’s real sore after I play. Once I’m going it’s not something I compensate for.”
Jaqua scored nine goals in 28 games two seasons ago, and his competition with White to partner Montero up top seemed to sharpen both players.
“[White] was coming along and it was going to be a good competition, it was bringing out the best of both players,” says Schmid, who can also turn to second-year man Mike Fucito and veteran Roger Levesque to fill the void at forward.
Replacing Zakuani is an impossible task. His brazen runs, speed, and predatory instincts netted 10 goals last year, which tied with Montero for the team lead. His absence will likely require a change in the system of play as well as personnel, though Schmid would rather not sacrifice one of his central midfielders – Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso – to beef up the attacking positions. Leo Gonzalez, like Zakuani, is left-sided but normally plays left back and has struggled with his passing and crossing.
“It changes our team a little bit, it changes how we play, because none of those guys – and very few players in this league – can do what Steve does,” says Schmid of the 2009 No. 1 SuperDraft pick. “We could play Rosales, Friberg is certainly an option, and Fernandez is an option as well. [Servando] Carrasco played all right in his one game at defensive midfield, so he’s an option.”
Schmid didn’t rule out the possibility of a trade or a major acquisition during the summer, but for the short-term, there’s not much salary-cap room to play with. Last week in a 1-0 defeat of Colorado, White started at forward with Montero, who scored on assists from Rosales and White in the 19th minute, about 10 minutes after Fernandez had replaced Zakuani.
“I’m going to see how many healthy bodies we have and try to put them out there on the field,” said Schmid, sounding resigned to another wave of hard decisions. “Obviously, Nate Jaqua has been coming along and we’ve tried not to rush him. He’s probably ready to start so that’s certainly an option.”
White would have been able to start against his former team Saturday; a visit of Toronto FC to Qwest Field starts a run of seven league games in 29 days that includes long trips to Washington, D.C., and Columbus as well as the first MLS revival of the Seattle-Portland rivalry (May 14). If Jaqua is to be the short-term solution he’ll need to prove it rather quickly.
“We’ve got a lot of options now that Fredy’s healthy,” says Jaqua of a depleted lineup that still has an abundance of attackers. “It’s a matter of me getting healthy and try to play how I want to be playing.”