By Ridge Mahoney
The Sounders got over an important hump in 2012, but still have yet to top two major bumps in the road.
Knocking off Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference semifinals marked their first playoff series win after three failures, but a subsequent loss to the Galaxy left them without an appearance in MLS Cup let alone a league title. Head coach Sigi Schmid took some heat when a 1-0 deficit ballooned to 3-0 in the first leg at Home Depot Center; Seattle narrowed the aggregate to 3-2 at home, but then conceded the goal that ended all hope of advancing.
Nonetheless, the fans came out as they always have to set yet another attendance record of 43,144 per game, about 20,000 more than the runner-up Galaxy (22,136). Team management opened up the entire capacity of CenturyLink Field (67,000) for three games last year and announced in January it will add one more full-capacity match for 2013, so another attendance mark is within reach.
There aren’t many changes in the works for the upcoming season but not for the first time a European player has apparently burned his bridges with the club. The loan of striker Fredy Montero to Colombian club Millonarios had been anticipated, but a preseason rift between Schmid and German midfielder Christian Tiffert surfaced unexpectedly, and certainly encouraged the signing of Shalrie Joseph, who had been cast off by Chivas USA. He is still a DP, though an undetermined amount of his salary and the cap hit have been absorbed by his former team.
In the wake of Freddie Ljungberg and Blaise Nkufo goes Tiffert, apparently, though with Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Servando Carrasco, Andy Rose and Joseph, the Sounders are well-stocked centrally. Losing Montero would derail the attack of many teams, but the Sounders can send out Mario Martinez, Steve Zakuani, Eddie Johnson and Rosales, and have capable backups in Sammy Ochoa and David Estrada. They are in the market for a forward, to give Schmid another alternative when Johnson plays for the USA and Martinez lines up for Honduras.
KEY PLAYER MOVES The pickups of Joseph and ex-Sounder Lamar Neagle, who went to Montreal last year along with Mike Fucito in the Eddie Johnson deal and was traded back last month, give the Sounders an amazing amount of midfield depth. Malian defender Djimi Traore, formerly of Liverpool and Marseille, helps compensate for the other significant loss: Jeff Parke’s trade to Philadelphia. Homegrown signing DeAndre Yedlin and SuperDraft picks Erik Zavaleta (a forward in college) and Dylan Remick join the defending corps.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? There don’t seem to be any significant weaknesses. The defense conceded only 33 goals last year, second-best in MLS, and keeper Michael Gspurning overcame an early-season injury to ably take over for legend Kasey Keller. The attack is potent, the midfield well-stocked, and if the loss of Parke can be overcome, the back line should again be solid. Huge, fanatical home crowds don’t hurt.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? Successful MLS teams must bear the double burden of international callups and Concacaf play, and the Sounders' deep roster will be tested. At times last year they labored to break down packed defenses, though if Zakuani can fully recover -- he played only eight matches as he recovered from a fractured tibia and fibula suffered in 2011 – he can stretch open the opposition. Defender Patrick Ianni suffered a fractured foot in preseason, and may not be ready for a tough opening sequence: four games in 15 days, including a home-and-away Concacaf series with Tigres and league games against Montreal and archrival Portland.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? The Sounders put on a show like no other. They can blow through defenses with pace and power (Zakuani and Johnson), or slice them open with flair and skill (Martinez and Rosales). Alonso roams the midfield dishing out rugged tackles, sliding incisive passes, and belting long-distance shots. They’re always among the contenders but until they get to an MLS Cup, there will always be that cloud of doubt if they can be the class of the Western Conference.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: Columbus | Houston | Montreal | New England | Philadelphia | Toronto FC
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | Portland | Vancouver