Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By VINCE MADURI
Even though the Seattle Sounders took a step forward in 2012 by posting the first playoff series win in the club’s MLS history, the Sounders still came away from 2012 without a trophy. A fact that kept the club from calling the season a success by their lofty standards.
The Sounders were about as close to hardware last season as you could hope for, but they came up short each time. The lost the U.S. Open Cup final to Sporting Kansas City in penalty kicks, then lost in the Western Conference finals against eventual MLS Cup champions Los Angeles Galaxy. Earlier in 2012, the Sounders reached the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League only to be dismantled by Santos Laguna.
Now the team enters a transition year with plenty of changes to the roster. The Sounders loaned out all-time leading goal scorer Fredy Montero to Colombian side Millonarios, traded defensive leader Jeff Parke to Philadelphia and are possibly working on parting ways with midfielder Christian Tiffert.
Seattle has added some players, most notably Shalrie Joseph and Djimi Traore, but it is the promise of a big-name summer signing (likely a forward) that will have Sounders fans thinking about the possibilities of this year being a championship season.
Here is a closer look at the Seattle Sounders heading into the 2013 MLS season:
SEATTLE SOUNDERS SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: 15-8-11, 56 points (third in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: M Shalrie Joseph, D Djimi Traore, D/F Eriq Zavaleta, D DeAndre Yedlin, M Lamar Neagle
KEY LOSSES: F Fredy Montero, D Jeff Parke, D/F Mike Seamon, F O’Brian White, GK Andrew Weber
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: D/F Eriq Zavaleta – Is the first round pick out of Indiana a defender or a forward? Sigi Schmid seems to be leaning toward defender and the Sounders still haven’t settled on a center back pairing. If Zavaleta can take the job at some point this season (it doesn’t need to be March 2), the Generations Adidas product could be the reason Seattle performs to the team’s high standard, or the reason they don’t.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: F Eddie Johnson – The USMNT player had a terrific comeback year in 2012. But with Montero gone and no immediate replacement for him in sight, Johnson is going to have to carry the weight up top for the time being. It will also be interesting to see how he does while not being paired with the all-star Colombian forward.
The loss of Montero is not as devastating as it could have been thanks to the emergence of Eddie Johnson, who was acquired by the Sounders via a trade with Montreal last year. Johnson scored 14 goals in 28 appearances and will be looked upon to step into the alpha dog role in Montero’s absence. With that said, there is still a hefty void next to Eddie Johnson as Seattle have yet to sign a direct replacement for a player who contributed 13 goals and 8 assists across 33 appearances last season.
“There’s probably been a few more loose ends in preseason than in the past preseasons,” head coach Sigi Schmid said. “There are more things in discussion and are being percolated and thought about as to what we’re going to do.”
Some of the production gap could be nullified by two players not listed as 2013 acquisitions but who might as well be.
Steve Zakuani is fully fit again for the first time in over a year and a half following a broken leg, and if the speedy midfielder’s performance in the second leg of the Western Conference Final against L.A. was any indication, Zakuani should regain the form that had him being mentioned as one of the top attacking players in the league.
Another player that will be looked upon to boost attacking production will be Mario Martinez. The Honduran international can play on the left or right, in midfield or up top paired with a lead striker and could be due for a breakout season with Seattle. Martinez took some time getting adjusted in Seattle and had been quoted in 2012 wanting more playing time. This is the chance to live up to the potential the player showed in last year’s Olympics for Honduras.
“I think he’s a quality player and I’ve always felt he’s a quality player,” Schmid said. “I think last year the situation was the team didn’t really know him. He was in for two or three days and then he was gone for four or five days. Then he was back again, then he was gone. He really didn’t settle in terms of even his living situation in Seattle. I think he’s more settled. The guys know who he is, so that’s made things a lot easier.”
“When he plays for us in midfield, he’s different than Mauro and he’s different than Steve [Zakuani] in a certain way. He’s more of a playmaker. He’s left footed, but he certainly is a guy who’s a good passer of the ball and helps our team play well.”
Mauro Rosales, who had emerged as a premier playmaker in MLS over the past two years, was not healthy for the playoffs and the Sounders will try to manage his time effectively enough to where that situation doesn’t arise again in 2013. Rosales is another player who could theoretically end up being paired with Eddie Johnson up top, and the Argentine has been experimented with in that position this preseason.
Defensively, Osvaldo Alonso is arguably the best defensive midfielder in MLS and he will have plenty of cover now in the form of Shalrie Joseph, who is 34, but can still provide quality either in central midfield or at the centerback position. Schmid can partner Alonso and Joseph against some opponents, while also considering Joseph a centerback option as well.
Michael Gspurning proved to be a more than capable replacement for U.S. legend Kasey Keller, leading the league with a 0.73 goals-against average over 21 starts. The Austrian will be looked upon to lead a re-shuffled back line in 2013.