Seven weeks prior to the first kick, the players and coaches of Seattle Sounders FC will gather Tuesday morning at their Starfire training camp to begin preparing for their third season.
The players will turn out in the cool, damp morning knowing nothing less than winning the MLS Cup will suffice.
“Only one team is happy at the end of the year and thats the team that won the MLS Cup,” said Chris Henderson, technical director for the Sounders. “When you dont win its a disappointment. We want to make sure we come in and learn from the lessons of last year and then go out and win the championship.”
Led by captain Kasey Keller, who will be playing his 19th and final season as a professional soccer player, the expectations and the ambitions are enormous. Every player, coach, manager and supporter crave the ultimate elixir of competitive sports — to be crowned the champions.
Without doubt, the Sounders have upgraded their talent pool. But with division rival Los Angeles Galaxy signing Colombian forward Juan Pablo Angel to add to its star-studded lineup, and with the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps making their MLS debut, the question is whether the Sounders have acquired enough new talent to reinforce their quest for the MLS Cup.
Such an outcome will be determined by the fate of several unfolding scenarios. Success will depend on the new internationals — Swedish midfielder Erik Friberg from BK Hacken, Jamaican forward O’Brian White from Toronto FC (via Vancouver expansion draft), MLS top draft pick and Ghanian Michael Tetteh, an X-factor whose enormous potential is mostly untapped. It will depend on key returning veterans who were out most of last season due to injury as well as emerging MLS stars Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani leading the attack.
Friberg, 24, is expected to bring more creativity and passing vision to the center midfield position. A lack of imagination in the center of the pitch became glaring during the playoffs when Los Angeles shut down the wings and suffocated Montero in the middle. Seattle desperately needs a creative midfield option to take the pressure off Montero and the wide attacking players. Friberg, highly touted from Sweden’s first division, could be that player. Even so, he is no Freddie Ljungberg. And while that might be a good thing, the question for Friberg is whether he really has the quality to elevate the Sounders’ attack.
White, 25, is a fast, physical forward much in the mold of star designated player and forward Blaise Nkufo. White was drafted fourth overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and was named the MAC Hermann Trophy winner for scoring 23 goals in his junior year at the University of Connecticut. A serious knee injury slowed his progress during his first two seasons with Toronto. White certainly brings depth to the forward position for what will be a long and grueling season that includes the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League matches in addition to 34 MLS games.
The result of the season also will depend on the physical well-being of two key veterans who missed most of last year due to serious knee injuries. Defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and center midfielder Brad Evans, ended their seasons early and did not play after June.
Sounders officials say both players are cleared to begin full training. Hurtado, who suffered a torn ACL on May 22, was a 2009 All-Star and finalist for MLS Defender of the Year. A multidimensional midfielder, Evans also underwent knee surgery and did not play after June 10. The Sounders will need both players to return to their best for the team to be successful.
Montero and Zakuani will need to elevate their games and produce the kind of consistency that is demanded of star players. Each scored 10 goals last season– yet neither produced in the playoffs. Zakuani, though, clearly raised his level of play and could sparkle this season.
Montero, who is now a designated player, is under pressure to deliver. Can he do it? If desire and passion count for anything, then it’s clear Montero wants to make his mark. He obviously has the talent but remaining cool and composed under pressure from the physical and aggressive MLS defenders remains his biggest challenge. Remember, Montero, a forward, has led the Sounders in fouls committed for the past two years. Normally, this distinction goes to a defender. If Montero keeps his temper in check, the Sounders will go far.
Tetteh, the Sounders top MLS draft pick from University California-Santa Barbara, is another player with the talent to step in and make a difference. His blinding pace, his cultured left foot and solid defensive credentials make him an option at left back and left mid — particularly late in games where he can put his pace to an advantage. He could be the biggest surprise for the Sounders.
Adding depth to the roster was another aim of the offseason. The Sounders acquired defenders Danny Earls and Juilen Baudet from the Colorado Rapids in the expansion draft. They will battle for precious few defender spots along with some rookies.
The Sounders expect to have up to 38 players appearing in their preseason camp competing for 28 roster spots. Teams can expand rosters to 30 players but the final two slots have to be home-grown players designates.
Will that be strong enough to capture the prize? The competition for spots will certainly strengthen the depth of the squad. But it will ultimately come down to the leadership of Keller and the talent of Zakuani, Montero and the other veterans to get the job done.