By JASON MITCHELL
The beginning of the end, majority owner Joe Roth said in December, was the last weekend in September.
It’s a story most Sounders fans probably don’t want to hear again, but one that bears repeating, if only because the story sculpted the 2014 roster.
Heading into a Sept. 29 home match against the New York Red Bulls with the league’s best record on the line, the Sounders had all but erased memories of a dismal 0-3-2 start to the season, smearing the league Rave Green while compiling a 15-5-3 record since late April.
The teams played to a draw that still looks fine on paper, but that somehow sent Seattle tumbling. The Sounders lost their next match 5-1 in Colorado, then lost 4-1 at home to the Vancouver Whitecaps. The free fall continued, leaving Seattle winless over a seven-game stretch that spanned the last five weeks of the season.
A wildcard win over the Colorado Rapids briefly raised hopes that the Portland Timbers dashed in a hurry. The Timbers outscored Seattle 5-3 in a conference quarterfinal that was nowhere near as close as the aggregate score suggested.
At the team’s annual end-of-year meeting with fans, Roth decried a lack of on-field passion. Both general manager Adrian Hanauer and head coach Sigi Schmid admitted to locker room issues. Many assumed Schmid would lose his job over the collapse, but Hanauer and Roth decided the problem was the roster, not the coach. The team traded Eddie Johnson to D.C. United in a heartbeat, and wholesale changes followed.
Seattle has reached the playoffs in each of the last five years, an accomplishment matched only by the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake. Entering their sixth season, the Sounders are hoping a roster retooled around Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Brad Evans, DeAndre Yedlin, and Osvaldo Alonso will be enough to take the team to its first MLS Cup.
Here’s a closer look at the 2014 Seattle Sounders:
2013 RECORD: 15-12-7 (fourth place in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Kenny Cooper, M Marco Pappa, D Chad Marshall, D Jalil Anibaba, GK Stefan Frei
KEY LOSSES: F Eddie Johnson, M Mauro Rosales, M Steve Zakuani, D Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, GK Michael Gspurning
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Marco Pappa — Mauro Rosales and his club record 34 assists are gone to Chivas USA. While the left-footed Pappa plays on the opposite side of the field, much of the play-making duties will likely fall to the 26-year-old Guatemalan. Although he’s never been the assist machine that Rosales was, Pappa has also never provided service to the likes of Cooper, Martins, and Dempsey. With 26 goals in just over four seasons with the Chicago Fire, Pappa should also provide scoring punch Seattle’s left side has been missing since injuries derailed Steve Zakuani’s career.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: Clint Dempsey — Dempsey hasn’t consistently played at the top of his game since 2012. An underwhelming start to his MLS career last season preceded an underwhelming winter loan to his old stomping grounds at Fulham. As one of the highest-profile signings and biggest contracts in league history, there would be plenty of pressure on Dempsey even if the World Cup wasn’t less than 100 days away. As it stands, the entire American soccer community will be analyzing his every move, and Schmid will need him both to score and to make plays for others.
Despite the way last season ended, there’s no reason to think the Sounders aren’t among the five or six teams that have the most realistic shot at winning the Supporters’ Shield and competing for the 2014 MLS Cup.
The roster is still loaded, laced with past, present, and future national team players. The team has gotten younger, more athletic, and—with the addition of Chad Marshall at center back—a good deal more chippy and physical. As Schmid noted multiple times in the offseason, the team retained the “spine” of Alonso, Evans, Dempsey, and Martins despite changes all around them.
Losing Eddie Johnson could be a classic example of addition-by-subtraction, and Cooper is a replacement who has twice scored 18 goals in an MLS season. The back line should be improved with the acquisitions of Marshall—the big, physical center back the team has always lacked—and Jalil Anibaba. Rosales is a significant loss, but it was clear last year that the 33-year-old had begun to slow, and health was a persistent issue his entire stay in Seattle.
Newcomer Stefan Frei looks likely to get the nod in goal over 41-year-old Marcus Hahnemann. Frei, 27, put in three solid years for Toronto FC before injuries sidelined him for most of the last two seasons. Seattle acquired Frei in December for a conditional first-round pick in the 2015 SuperDraft.
“Stefan is a goalkeeper we have liked for a number of years,” Schmid said at the time of the trade.
An overhauled back line will work in front of Frei, with Marshall pairing with either Djimi Traore or Anibaba at center back. Acquired from the Chicago Fire in exchange for Hurtado and Patrick Ianni, Anibaba is a versatile young defender who can also play right back if needed.
Rising star DeAndre Yedlin returns at right back, a year more experienced and with a USMNT camp and cap under his belt. Perennial starting left back Leo Gonzalez, with the Sounders since early in their inaugural MLS season, has been slow to recover from offseason groin surgery. Second-year player Dylan Remick has impressed in the 33-year-old Costa Rican’s preseason absence, and could push for a larger role. For a defense that looked at best a step slow down the stretch in 2013, a pair of 22-year-old legs could be a welcome addition.
Club icon Zach Scott, a Sounder since before the Sounders joined MLS, will return yet again to provide depth at both center back and right back.
Seattle at least partly shipped out Rosales to free a Designated Player spot for midfield anchor Osvaldo Alonso. One of the best defensive midfielders in the league, expect the 28-year-old Cuban-American to once again set a physical tone in the middle of the park and spray an efficient array of passes to attacking players.
Pappa, 26, should significantly upgrade left midfield, a position that was filled by committee last year and that has been a relative weakness since Steve Zakuani broke his leg in 2011. Returning to MLS after an 18-month stint with Eredivisie side SC Heerenveen, Pappa will provide some of the technical ability and creativity lost with Rosales’ departure.
Scoring shouldn’t be an issue—if Dempsey hits his stride and if Martins can stay healthy, Seattle should have one of the most lethal attacks in the league. Veteran journeyman Chad Barrett, picked up in the Re-Entry Draft, will provide depth up top, as will local product Lamar Neagle, signed to a contract extension in January after a bounce-back campaign in 2013.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP