The meeting before the Sounders first preseason practice Tuesday was quick and to the point — coach Sigi Schmid told the group he wants more intensity, he wants more gusto, and he wants more competition for the starting 11 spots — from day one.
Most of all, he wants the players to remember the pain they felt losing to the L.A. Galaxy in the playoffs. “I think the pain in the gut is hopefully a little deeper from losing last year in the playoffs,” Schmid said. “We need to push ourselves just that little bit more. We need to demand more of ourselves, demand more of our friends on the team and thats got to be a theme that runs through us all season.
The message seemed to resonate among the players. They trotted out for a 90-minute session that crackled and buzzed with energy and intensity. Sure, players were excited to be back playing again, but there appeared to be hunger, and there certainly was competition.
In the 8 v 8 half-field scrimmages, players were going for it, making hard tackles, ripping shots into the back of the net and scolding those who slipped up. At one point, defender James Riley was chastising some midfielders who let newbie forward O’Brian White turn in the middle of the pitch and then split the defenders with a pass to an onrushing teammate who slammed the ball into the net. Riley let it be known he was not happy with that entire defensive breakdown.
“From day one it’s going to be a battle,” said midfielder Brad Evans, who saw his first competitive action since recovering from a knee injury that kept him sidelined most of last season. “He’s got guys here for a reason. We need more fire and more desire. This is year three — it’s gut-check time.”
Much as he did with the Columbus Crew, Schmid has built his team around a core group of players that have now been with the club for three years. He told them in the meeting that this is the season this core group needs to step forward.
Yes, the Sounders are one of two teams to make the playoffs in their first year. Yes, the Sounders are the only expansion team to win the U.S. Open Cup. Yes, they won the Open Cup in their second year — a feat repeated only once in modern MLS times — and yes the Sounders qualified for the playoffs in year two. This underlines a culture of excellence that Schmid is trying to build in a league that imposes a salary cap, in a league that endorses parity. So, now it’s time, Schmid told the players. They will need to elevate their effort; it’s what the culture of the club demands.
“This is the year that if we dont accomplish some of the things we feel we can accomplish then you got to start looking at breaking up that core,” Schmid said. “So this is an important year.
None of the players are complaining. They are professionals and understand the harsh realities of the pro game — produce or go home. Most welcome the amplified competition for roster spots — let alone battling for one of the starting 11 positions. Schmid made sure there are two to three, sometimes four quality players contesting each position.
For players such as Steve Zakuani, the fear is not making the squad but failing to go deeper into the playoffs and win the MLS Cup. Zakuani, who earned his first international cap with the Democratic Republic of Congo and who trained for several weeks with Everton in the English Premier League during the offseason, does not want to repeat the frustration from last year — an uneven year of ups and downs that ended in playoff defeat to the Galaxy.
“My worst feeling in pro soccer was watching L.A. players celebrate,” Zakuani said. “The pain is driving us. We don’t want to repeat last year and ask what if.”