Three matches into the new season and the Seattle Sounders still haven’t found what they are looking for — at least not yet.
What haven’t they found?
They haven’t found their first victory.
They have yet to settle on the perfect combination in the midfield, or possibly in the back four, and they have yet to prove that their current strikers can supplant the need to shell out for a proven goal scorer from Europe or Latin America.
But is that a reason to panic? Not quite yet. Much will depend on how the team performs over the next several matches — beginning with the San Jose Earthquakes at Spartan Stadium this Saturday.
Until then, the more intriguing competition will occur on the practice fields, since nearly all of the players are now injury free and pushing for a starting spot.
The most intense battles certainly will focus on the midfield positions. There are six quality midfielders challenging for four spots. Add rookie Servando Carrasco, who has impressed, and it climbs to seven.
“Its good to have competition. Its a matter of whoever plays best will go out and play,” Coach Sigi Schmid said, referring to his midfield group. “Right now, the games are limited, so its a matter of whose performing on a day-to-day basis. Those guys definitely have to be on their toes.”
Brad Evans made his season debut Friday night and made a strong case for a starting spot in the center of the midfield. He played a very respectable 70 minutes, offering several of his patented box-to-box runs. He nearly scored early in the first half after he surged into the six-yard box, chasing an O’Brian White pass that he nearly got his foot on. He also looked sharp defensively and held his own physically against a strong and physical Houston team.
“I hope if I continue with some good performances it solidifies my role,” Evans said, who expects to play about 70 minutes until he reaches full fitness. Evans, who is returning from knee injury, says the competition creates for a “better team and for better competitiveness during practice and in the game. If youre not performing, someone is going to fill your spot.”
But it’s at the right side of the midfield that promises to generate all the action at practices. If Evans appears to have secured the center midfield position for the moment, it then comes down to the three foreigners — Erik Friberg, Mauro Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez to duke it out for the remaining starting spot.
Fernandez, one of two designated players for the Sounders, started the first two games and was subbed out in both. He said he expected to be subbed in the first game but was surprised in the second. He lost his starting spot to Friberg against Houston and did not see any action.
“I havent really talked to him (Schmid)about what I need to do,” Fernandez said, through an interpreter. “I need to play the best I can play to get back in the starting line up.”
Friberg has started all three matches due to injuries and his performances. His best position is probably in the center of the field but he played on the left and on the right sides in the last two matches.
Rosales replaced Evans and moved to the right side in the Houston game. He had an immediate impact on the match. He won some early tackles, beat his opponents down the right flank and sent in several teasing and nearly dangerous crosses. He’s still behind in his fitness but appears to be catching up quickly.
“Steadily, I hope to play more minutes, help the team anyway I can, and I’m ready to offer my best work, and when you work, you get the opportunities,” Rosales said. “I can play on the right side and in the middle. But always in attack.”
Rosales said, following the Houston game, that he has played most of his career on the right side. But he is comfortable anywhere in the midfield — even at striker. He said his 20 minutes against Houston was a glimpse of what he is capable of doing. He likes to attack, win balls and make things happen.
Either way, the competition should theoretically make the midfield and the team even stronger and offer Schmid options when the Sounders enter the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champion’s League. It’s clear that performance and fitness will dictate who starts.
“Weve got a lot of players working really hard to get into the starting 11,” said Alan Hinton, former head coach of the NASL Sounders and a current Sounders TV commentator. “Hell (Schmid) play the player he thinks will win the game.”
The same intriguing competition is being waged in the center of the defense. Patrick Ianni is now fully fit, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado is still returning to match fitness and Jeff Parke has been starting all of the matches. Schmid now has three quality center backs capable of starting.
Ianni was mostly injured in preseason, so there never was a competition for those positions, Schmid said. But now that has changed, particularly with Hutado struggling to find his form, even though that is expected to be a temporary condition.
“All three of those guys are MLS capable defenders,” Schmid said. “We never had enough of an opportunity to look at the different combinations and what worked together best. So the combination of Patrick and Kennedy (Hurtado) we never really got a chance to look at. Im sure at some point that is going to happen as well.
If all of these pieces fit together, will that be enough to take the Sounders deep into the playoffs this season? Perhaps so, but much will depend on whether the Sounders strike force can finish their chances.
The players and coaches insist finding the net is just a matter of time. But finding a top-class striker could certainly cinch the deal.