Sounders FC preview: A more powerful team that likely will take time to rise
Sounders FC's frenzied preseason, especially in the buildup to Saturday's opener versus Montreal, has led to a slight shift entering Year 5. More than ever the team is focused on a singular goal — winning MLS Cup.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Montreal @ Sounders FC, 7:30 p.m., Ch. 5
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TUKWILA — The Sounders FC mantra had been fairly consistent for four years:
"If we're in a competition, we want to win it."
That idea hasn't exactly changed entering the franchise's fifth MLS season. Sure, Seattle will give an honest effort in other nonleague competitions — including the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League starting next week — but the drive of the team, it seems, is shifting more and more toward a single goal: winning MLS Cup.
"It's not like we've come out and stated that all of a sudden Open Cup isn't important, Champions League isn't important," said Adrian Hanauer, part owner and general manager, "but it does feel like the team has come together and put a pretty big bull's-eye on MLS Cup.
"I think getting that next bite last year, sort of getting over the hump against (Real Salt Lake) and then falling short against L.A., has redoubled our emphasis and efforts toward that goal."
An unsteady path in the offseason is leading to a year of late gains.
For the first couple months since the Sounders came one game short of the 2012 MLS Cup, the team's activity was noteworthy for a pair of high-profile departures — first the trade of Jeff Parke, Seattle's two-time Defender of the Year, to Philadelphia, and then the seasonlong loan of Fredy Montero, the franchise's all-time leading scorer, to Colombia's Millonarios.
But the action has increased to almost a manic pace as the Sounders approach the start of the season, and that could extend beyond Saturday's opener against Montreal. A couple weeks ago, the team surprisingly traded for midfielder Shalrie Joseph, an eight-time MLS All-Star who will be one of Seattle's designated players.
Then, experienced defender Djimi Traore — who won the 2005 UEFA Champions League title with England's Liverpool — signed with the team a week before opening day.
Most recently, sporting director Chris Henderson has been in Spain to secure the transfer of Obafemi Martins from Levante UD. The Nigerian forward told the BBC recently that the move is nearly complete — and could be finalized by Saturday. The acquisition would likely work in conjunction with the Sounders buying out the contract of midfielder Christian Tiffert to open a DP slot on the roster.
Ideally, all these moves would have been completed earlier in preseason, perhaps even before camp started.
A somewhat unsettled state, according to Hanauer, has forced the team to concede it might not be championship-ready at the start of the season — especially for the upcoming CCL quarterfinal series against the best team in Mexico, Tigres UANL.
"We were willing to sacrifice a little bit on the front end (of the schedule) to make sure that we had things sorted come the summer as we head into the playoff hunt," Hanauer explained.
But does that impact the players, with games about to kick off?
"The guys are still focused," said coach Sigi Schmid, acknowledging the increase in "loose ends" this preseason.
"I think we're going to be better as we move along in the season than we're going to be in that first two to three weeks, but that's something that happens all the time. ... I have faith and confidence in their abilities as soccer players to work with each other pretty quickly."
Motivation isn't hard to come by with this Sounders squad, especially coming off the first trophy-less season in franchise history.
So focus this year is centered on the big prize — MLS Cup. This might be the team to win it.
The would-be forward partnership of Eddie Johnson and Martins could be the best in the league. Seattle's midfield is among the elite in MLS, led by Best XI selection Osvaldo Alonso and also featuring the exciting trio of Mauro Rosales, Steve Zakuani and Mario Martinez. Furthermore, there might not be a better MLS goalkeeper than Michael Gspurning.
"We were really close last year," Johnson said. "We know what that felt like. It was bittersweet because, yeah, we got further than we ever had as an organization, but it didn't end the way we wanted it to end. Hopefully we can put it together this year."
Added Zakuani: "Every year we try to improve, and improving this year is going one step further, which would be the MLS Cup championship game. That's what we're aiming for."
Even if the potential cost is a slow start to the season.
"We want to be peaking in September, October, November, December," Hanauer said. "It would be great to be able to peak and be as strong as we're going to be all through the season, but if I had to pick one, it would be September through December."
• The Pro Shop at CenturyLink Field is closed through mid-June for a remodel and expansion. Temporary kiosks will be open outside the entrance to the Event Center and plazas on the stadium's north and south ends.