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Originally published Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Sounders FC ready for debut

Sounders FC laces up the boots for its inaugural game Thursday with high hopes under the direction of Sigi Schmid, its head coach, who has tasted success before.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Today

New York Red Bulls @ Sounders FC, 6:25 p.m., ESPN2

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Big-league professional soccer is finally back in Seattle.

Back after almost 26 years since the departure of the original Sounders from the North American Soccer League.

Sounders FC of Major League Soccer steps front and center at 6:25 p.m. today at Qwest Field in its inaugural game against the New York Red Bulls. But this is no ordinary expansion team expecting to take its lumps and build slowly for the future.

With head coach Sigi Schmid at the helm, Sounders FC brings lofty expectations and visions of success to a city of fans desperate for a winning pro franchise after the demise of the Sonics and the disappointment of the Mariners and Seahawks in 2008.

Schmid believes the team can challenge for the playoffs this season.

"To do well as an expansion team you have to do four things," Schmid said. "You have to do well in the expansion draft, you have to do well in the [amateur] draft, you have to get a good foreign contingent and you have to have some luck. We feel like we've done the first three things, and now we just need some luck."

Majority owner Joe Roth called the first shot in November, the day Sounders FC announced it had signed Swedish star Freddie Ljungberg as its designated player.

"Very simply, our goal is to come out with an expansion team and make the playoffs," Roth said.

Then he looked over at Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer.

"I don't want to put too much pressure on Adrian. I'm always reluctant to put much pressure," Roth said. "But if we don't make the playoffs the first year, I don't know what's wrong."

If Hanauer is the architect of the team with his player acquisitions, Schmid is the building manager, the veteran coach who led the Columbus Crew to the MLS title in 2008. Schmid was sought so hard by Hanauer and Sounders FC that Seattle sent cash to Columbus to free Schmid for contract negotiations.

Ljungberg is the international face of the team with his celebrity status in Europe. Goalkeeper Kasey Keller became a U.S. national-team legend before leaving the spotlight of European soccer to return home to play for the new team an hour from where he grew up.

Those two are the biggest names on a team balanced with accomplished veterans and young players with promise from all corners of the nation and the globe.

Forward Fredy Montero of Colombia is the team's prime scoring threat. Northwest native Nate Jaqua will be asked to provide offense, too, and midfielder Brad Evans, a key acquisition in the expansion draft, has a long history with Schmid from Columbus and before. Tyrone Marshall does, too, and is the experienced presence Schmid wanted on defense.

Exciting rookie Steve Zakuani was the first overall pick of the MLS SuperDraft of amateurs, and has shown a knack for getting into scoring position with his speed.

Criticism will come that perhaps Ljungberg, Keller, Marshall and midfielder Peter Vagenas, all over 30, are past their prime. That those players taken in the expansion draft were left unprotected by their respective former teams for performance reasons. That the South Americans, Montero and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, won't adapt to the chill of a Seattle spring.

"If there was ever a coach to bring guys together, it's certainly him," Evans said of Schmid. "He likes to keep it professional."

MLS expansion teams don't have a history of faring well in their first seasons. The San Jose Earthquakes scored only 11 goals in the first 17 games of 2008 after a two-year absence from MLS, and finished tied for last in the Western Conference. Toronto FC had the league's worst record at 6-17-7 in 2007. Real Salt Lake was 5-22-5 in 2005, also the league's worst record.

Sounders FC hopes to buck the trend. Schmid thinks his players are ready.

"Until all the nerves hit, until all the pressure is there, until you see all the people in the stands and you feel that momentum kick in and the adrenaline kick in, then you see how people react to those situations," Schmid said. "That is what usually separates the guys from the other guys."

The players have taken to Schmid, who has balanced his lighter side with when to buckle down and work the team in practice.

"We'll wait until that first bad goal happens in a league game," Keller said. "It's demanding, but I think there's a respect there."

Schmid knows what it takes to get to the postseason, having led two MLS teams to titles.

"Our goal is to make it to the dance, because once you're there you have a chance," he said. "You have to make it to the dance to get the girl, and that's what we're trying to do."

José Miguel Romero: 206-464-2409 or jromero@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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