MLS Preseason Preview: Sounders re-tool near the top

By Ridge Mahoney

Every year, it seems, Seattle Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid has to take the fall for not reaching the MLS Cup final, and every year majority owner Joe Roth sticks with him and changes something else.

Shortly after being eliminated by the Galaxy in the 2014 playoffs, the Sounders announced Schmid had signed a contract extension. A month or so later, word leaked out that one of the top team executives in MLS would be joining the fold. Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey has been hired as GM and president of soccer operations after helping ex-head coach Jason Kreis build RSL into a smashing success on and off the field.

Former Seattle GM Adrian Hanauer, who is also one of the team’s minority owners, will oversee all departments as the team moves forward as a separate entity; operations and staff (except for stadium personnel) are no longer shared with the NFL Seahawks.

Schmid, Lagerwey and technical director Chris Henderson are in charge of the competitive side. Lagerwey already starts out with a lead, as RSL won the MLS Cup title in 2009 -- played in Seattle, by the way -- and lost to Sporting Kansas City on penalty kicks in the 2013 final.

Preseason Schedule (Partial):

Feb. 18 -- at FC Tucson (Desert Diamond Cup) in Tucson, Ariz., Feb. 21 -- Sporting KC (Desert Diamond Cup) in Tucson, Ariz., Feb. 25 -- New England (Desert Diamond Cup) in Tucson, Ariz., Feb. 28 -- placement games (Desert Diamond Cup) in Tucson, Ariz.

As the Sounders embark on their seventh MLS season, here are three points to ponder:

1. Tear apart or tweak?

At RSL, Lagerwey engineered a major makeover after the 2012 season by which high-priced stalwarts Fabian Espindola, Will Johnson and Jamison Olave left the team. There’s no indication Seattle will undergo such a transformation, and aside from DeAndre Yedlin’s transfer to Tottenham leaving a hole at right back, the roster at this point looks very much like the squad that posted best overall regular-season record to win the Supporters’ Shield.

So how can the best team in the league – by that standard – get better? There’s little doubt that in Clint Dempsey, league MVP finalist Obafemi Martins, Defender of the Year Chad Marshall, perennial Best XI midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and U.S. international Brad Evans the Sounders are well-stocked with elite players. It’s not easy to upgrade a good team, but that is what Lagerwey is being asked to do, and with Seattle’s vast resources and money available from the sales of Yedlin and Freddy Montero (a year ago) he won’t be short of possibilities. Seattle already has three DPs -- and is paying big cash to Dempsey and Martins -- but with a deep pool of allocation money it can still go after accomplished players.

At RSL, Lagerwey and Kreis emphasized the team concept and also maintained a healthy mood of competition within the squad to keep the starters sharp and the backups hungry. There are more stars in Seattle, but Lagerwey will expect the same grit and work ethic that was instilled at RSL.

2. Bolstering an aging defense.

Marshall won the top defender award against the run of play, as Seattle ended the season tied with New York for most goals conceded, 50, by a playoff team. The Sounders did tighten up their defense in the playoffs, conceding three goals in four matches while tying both series on aggregate: 1-1 with FC Dallas and 2-2 against the Galaxy. Both series were decided by away goals and by that margin Seattle fell short of its first MLS Cup.

Along with Yedlin, centerbacks Djimi Traore and Jalil Anibaba have moved on, so Schmid needs a central partner for Marshall unless he hands the job to Zach Scott, who manned the middle in all four playoff games and has also played on the outside. Yedlin’s spot could be claimed by English midfielder Tyrone Mears, who has been signed as a free agent and at 31 has a deep pool of experience from which to draw. Evans has also played right back for Seattle and the U.S. national team though he prefers midfield.

The Sounders’ brain trust must also take a close look at left back Leo Gonzalez, a member of the team since 2009 who, like Scott, is 34. The Costa Rican possesses a good left foot and a green card but the years are working against him; with several promising left backs in the SuperDraft this need could be addressed.

3. Second team moves into USL PRO.

Since announcing in October that Sounders FC 2 will play in USL PRO this year, Seattle has signed the fourth and fifth Homegrown players in its MLS history: Victor Mansaray, 17, and Darwin Jones, 22. Both are products of the Sounders Academy program and Jones completed his eligibility at the University of Washington last year before signing a pro contract.

Yedlin is perhaps the league’s most spectacular Homegrown success story, yet another Seattle HG signing, Sean Okoli, has been waived. Many MLS clubs are banking on USL PRO competition to provide that vital link between academy squads and the first team. Seattle has both deep-pocketed owners and extensive ties to the community, so the fate of Sounders FC 2 is of great interest around the league.

Offseason Moves:
D Jimmy Ockford (loan return from New York Cosmos), F Victor Mansaray (Seattle Sounders Academy), D Tyrone Mears (Bolton Wanderers, England), F Darwin Jones (Univ. of Washington)

OUT: GK Marcus Hahnemann (retired), D Onyekachi Apam (option declined)
F Sean Okoli (option declined), D Djimi Traore (option declined), F Cam Weaver (option declined), D/F Eriq Zavaleta (option declined), D Jalil Anibaba (Orlando City), F Tristan Bowen (New England), GK Josh Ford (Orlando City), D DeAndre Yedlin (Tottenham, England).

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