By JOEY SAMUEL
After three straight seasons of playoff disappointment, the Seatte Sounders are back for 2012, and it could be their most important season in franchise history.
The Sounders' narrow loss in the Western Conference Semfinals of the 2011 MLS Cup Playoffs left a bitter, yet familiar, taste in the mouths of its devoted fans. But this year, with a somewhat new-look squad and a chance to progress far in the CONCACAF Champions' League, this could be Seatte's year.
Gone is goalkeeper Kasey Keller, the heart and soul of the team over its first three years in Major League Soccer. His replacement, signed this offseason, is Austrian Michael Gspurning. But he wasn't the Sounders' only big acquisition. They also added U.S. international striker Eddie Johnson and a few other players to shore up the roster.
With Keller gone, as well as some other Sounders that had been around for a while, other players, like Brad Evans, Jeff Parke, or even Fredy Montero will be relied on in more of a leadership role as the Sounders look to take the next step.
"There's a number of core guys here who can take that burden," said Evans. "It doesn't have to be one guy. It doesn't have to be Kasey Keller now, there's multiple guys who can carry the weight for the team on their shoulders."
Here is a closer look at the Sounders ahead of the 2012 MLS season:
SEATTLE SOUNDERS SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 18-7-9, 63 points (second in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: G Michael Gspurning, F Eddie Johnson, D Marc Burch, D Adam Johansson, M Christian Sivebaek, F Cordell Cato
KEY LOSSES: G Kasey Keller, D James Riley, F Michael Fucito, D Tyson Wahl, G Terry Boss, D Taylor Graham, F Nate Jaqua, F Pat Noonan, M Erik Friberg, M Lamar Neagle
The absence of Keller will be a huge difference in the Sounders organization throughout 2012. With the former U.S. international now in the broadcast booth instead of down on the field, a huge burden will be placed on new starter Michael Gspurning to fill those shoes. Of course, the Sounders knew this, so they signed a player with years of experince in Europe, especially in the Greek league, to play between the pipes.
Seattle's defense will without a doubt have a new look to it, specifically on the wings. James Riley, the starting right back for most of the Sounders' three years in MLS, was plucked by Montreal in the Expansion Draft. He will be replaced by Adam Johansson, a Swedish defender signed from Goteborg who has 11 caps with the Sweden national team.
Also gone are Tyson Wahl, Taylor Graham, and Leone Cruz. To remedy these losses Seattle brought in former DC United defender Marc Burch, who will challenge Leonardo Gonzalez for the starting left back position. Rock-solid centerbacks Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Jeff Parke remain, with Patrick Ianni still around as cover as well.
The midfield remained largely intact for Seattle, as core elements Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Mauro Rosales, and Alvaro Fernandez are still around. Erik Friberg is gone after one season, and the promising Lamar Neagle was traded away. But the pressing issue on the minds of many Sounders fans is the status of Steve Zakuani, still injured after sustaining a freakish broken leg early last season. Coach Sigi Schmid is hopeful he will be back soon.
"He's coming along," Schmid said. "He's on a little bit of a plateau now, but he made great strides from the beginning of preseason to now. I'm very, very encouraged that he'll be able to make it back full-out. The glimpses are definitely coming back and I think everyone wishes him all the best because that was a horrific injury last year."
While Zakuani continues to recover, much of the goal-scoring burden will remain with the team's strikers, who now count U.S. international Eddie Johnson as one of their ranks. The ability of Johnson and Seattle's talisman Fredy Montero to play well together at the striker position will be key. In fact, the addition of Johnson could give Montero more space on the field and allow him to reach his full potential.
“Fredy is very ambitious; he wants to win every time he steps on the field,” Schmid said. ”Players like that I think are special and are so good because they’re always trying to find a weakness in their opponent, something they can exploit, something that they can use to their advantage so that they can be successful at the end of the day, and that’s the way Fredy is.”
If Montero can make a good case for the MVP award, and Johnson can mesh well with him, the Sounders will be difficult to stop this year. By the time Zakuani returns, Seattle will be truly formidable in attack. And with a spell of competitive matches in the CONCACAF Champions' League early in March to get the team in game mode, they could have an advantage over other teams in the league. This could, finally, be the Sounders' year, but only time will tell.