By JOSE M. ROMERO
For the Seattle Sounders, there will be one positive difference from last season: Blaise N'Kufo arrives July 13, the team announced this week.
Beyond that, one thing is quite clear: The 2010 Sounders, as they are now, are far removed from the 2009 club as far as level of play. So much so that the postseason is now closer to being out of reach for the club at the season's midpoint.
The goalkeeper and back line are taxed, affected by both the season-ending injury to defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and the inability of the forward players to generate enough offense. Last season when the offense sputtered, the defense was strong enough to keep Seattle close and provide enough stability for the offense to build up chances. Not the case so much in 2010, as opponents have nine goals (including an own goal) in the past three matches.
Kasey Keller and his defenders were under attack from the start Sunday night against the Los Angeles Galaxy, forced to chase Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle and Juninho. As bad as Seattle needs wins, it seemed that a draw would suffice, as the Rave Green was clearly the lesser of the two teams on the field Sunday night.
The easiest excuse to make for the 2010 Sounders' shortcomings is injuries. Midfielders Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso remain unable to play and Nate Jaqua, such a key last season, is only now rounding into form after returning from a long-term injury.
That said, Sigi Schmid still has many of the same players from last year. It makes one wonder why they are underachieving. Freddie Ljungberg disappears at times. Keller is having too work to hard for a guy in the twilight of his career. The team lacks cohesion, energy and a killer instinct in the box.
There is talent — Steve Zakuani is developing into quite the offensive threat and keeps teams honest with his speed – but one wonders about the team's depth if wins are at a premium when the top players are out. And is the leadership, from coaching staff to Keller and Ljungberg, doing enough to inspire the rest of the team? Are the leaders leading?
It's hard to imagine things improving for Seattle in the second half of the season, a backloaded one with a U.S. Open Cup match this week against Los Angeles and two CONCACAF Champions League matches ahead (one in El Salvador), plus a couple of friendlies. The arrival of N'Kufo is heralded as a possible energizer, but even that seems like it won't be enough to get this team a playoff spot.
N'Kufo will be honored with a statue by supporters of FC Twente, his former club in Holland. The statue is to be unveiled on July 11 at the club's home stadium, then N'Kufo is off to Seattle to report to training. He is eligible to be added to the roster July 15.
There are no statues going up in SoDo, the part of Seattle that houses Qwest Field, though.
It's as if this year's team should have been last year's floundering side making its way through Year One, and then improvement would come in Year Two. But these Sounders look like they are in a sophomore slump. An own goal from James Riley Sunday? The bad breaks seem to add up when things aren't going so well.
The Galaxy are head-and-shoulders better. They showed it Sunday night, just as they did in Seattle earlier this season. Last year's Sounders were every bit as good as the Galaxy in the regular season, but the gap in quality of play has widened significantly this year.
The Sounders hope the turf at their second home, the Starfire Sports Complex, offers them more of an advantage against the Galaxy then at the HDC or Qwest Field. Wednesday's Open Cup match (7 p.m.) is sold out (roughly 4,300 fans), and if Seattle wins, it gets to host the Chivas USA-Houston Dynamo winner on Aug. 31 or Sept. 1 in a semifinal match.