SBI MLS Season Preview: Seattle Sounders

Seattle Sounders v Toronto FC

By JASON MITCHELL

The beginning of the end, majority owner Joe Roth said in December, was the last weekend in September.

It’s a story most Sounders fans probably don’t want to hear again, but one that bears repeating, if only because the story sculpted the 2014 roster.

Heading into a Sept. 29 home match against the New York Red Bulls with the league’s best record on the line, the Sounders had all but erased memories of a dismal 0-3-2 start to the season, smearing the league Rave Green while compiling a 15-5-3 record since late April.

The teams played to a draw that still looks fine on paper, but that somehow sent Seattle tumbling. The Sounders lost their next match 5-1 in Colorado, then lost 4-1 at home to the Vancouver Whitecaps. The free fall continued, leaving Seattle winless over a seven-game stretch that spanned the last five weeks of the season.

A wildcard win over the Colorado Rapids briefly raised hopes that the Portland Timbers dashed in a hurry. The Timbers outscored Seattle 5-3 in a conference quarterfinal that was nowhere near as close as the aggregate score suggested.

At the team’s annual end-of-year meeting with fans, Roth decried a lack of on-field passion. Both general manager Adrian Hanauer and head coach Sigi Schmid admitted to locker room issues. Many assumed Schmid would lose his job over the collapse, but Hanauer and Roth decided the problem was the roster, not the coach. The team traded Eddie Johnson to D.C. United in a heartbeat, and wholesale changes followed.

Seattle has reached the playoffs in each of the last five years, an accomplishment matched only by the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake. Entering their sixth season, the Sounders are hoping a roster retooled around Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Brad Evans, DeAndre Yedlin, and Osvaldo Alonso will be enough to take the team to its first MLS Cup.

Here’s a closer look at the 2014 Seattle Sounders:

2013 RECORD: 15-12-7 (fourth place in Western Conference)

KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Kenny Cooper, M Marco Pappa, D Chad Marshall, D Jalil Anibaba, GK Stefan Frei

KEY LOSSES: F Eddie Johnson, M Mauro Rosales, M Steve Zakuani, D Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, GK Michael Gspurning

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Marco Pappa — Mauro Rosales and his club record 34 assists are gone to Chivas USA. While the left-footed Pappa plays on the opposite side of the field, much of the play-making duties will likely fall to the 26-year-old Guatemalan. Although he’s never been the assist machine that Rosales was, Pappa has also never provided service to the likes of Cooper, Martins, and Dempsey. With 26 goals in just over four seasons with the Chicago Fire, Pappa should also provide scoring punch Seattle’s left side has been missing since injuries derailed Steve Zakuani’s career.

THE PRESSURE IS ON: Clint Dempsey — Dempsey hasn’t consistently played at the top of his game since 2012. An underwhelming start to his MLS career last season preceded an underwhelming winter loan to his old stomping grounds at Fulham. As one of the highest-profile signings and biggest contracts in league history, there would be plenty of pressure on Dempsey even if the World Cup wasn’t less than 100 days away. As it stands, the entire American soccer community will be analyzing his every move, and Schmid will need him both to score and to make plays for others.

OUTLOOK

Despite the way last season ended, there’s no reason to think the Sounders aren’t among the five or six teams that have the most realistic shot at winning the Supporters’ Shield and competing for the 2014 MLS Cup.

The roster is still loaded, laced with past, present, and future national team players. The team has gotten younger, more athletic, and—with the addition of Chad Marshall at center back—a good deal more chippy and physical. As Schmid noted multiple times in the offseason, the team retained the “spine” of Alonso, Evans, Dempsey, and Martins despite changes all around them.

Losing Eddie Johnson could be a classic example of addition-by-subtraction, and Cooper is a replacement who has twice scored 18 goals in an MLS season. The back line should be improved with the acquisitions of Marshall—the big, physical center back the team has always lacked—and Jalil Anibaba. Rosales is a significant loss, but it was clear last year that the 33-year-old had begun to slow, and health was a persistent issue his entire stay in Seattle.

Newcomer Stefan Frei looks likely to get the nod in goal over 41-year-old Marcus Hahnemann. Frei, 27, put in three solid years for Toronto FC before injuries sidelined him for most of the last two seasons. Seattle acquired Frei in December for a conditional first-round pick in the 2015 SuperDraft.

“Stefan is a goalkeeper we have liked for a number of years,” Schmid said at the time of the trade.

An overhauled back line will work in front of Frei, with Marshall pairing with either Djimi Traore or Anibaba at center back. Acquired from the Chicago Fire in exchange for Hurtado and Patrick Ianni, Anibaba is a versatile young defender who can also play right back if needed.

Rising star DeAndre Yedlin returns at right back, a year more experienced and with a USMNT camp and cap under his belt. Perennial starting left back Leo Gonzalez, with the Sounders since early in their inaugural MLS season, has been slow to recover from offseason groin surgery. Second-year player Dylan Remick has impressed in the 33-year-old Costa Rican’s preseason absence, and could push for a larger role. For a defense that looked at best a step slow down the stretch in 2013, a pair of 22-year-old legs could be a welcome addition.

Club icon Zach Scott, a Sounder since before the Sounders joined MLS, will return yet again to provide depth at both center back and right back.

Seattle at least partly shipped out Rosales to free a Designated Player spot for midfield anchor Osvaldo Alonso. One of the best defensive midfielders in the league, expect the 28-year-old Cuban-American to once again set a physical tone in the middle of the park and spray an efficient array of passes to attacking players.

Pappa, 26, should significantly upgrade left midfield, a position that was filled by committee last year and that has been a relative weakness since Steve Zakuani broke his leg in 2011. Returning to MLS after an 18-month stint with Eredivisie side SC Heerenveen, Pappa will provide some of the technical ability and creativity lost with Rosales’ departure.

Scoring shouldn’t be an issue—if Dempsey hits his stride and if Martins can stay healthy, Seattle should have one of the most lethal attacks in the league. Veteran journeyman Chad Barrett, picked up in the Re-Entry Draft, will provide depth up top, as will local product Lamar Neagle, signed to a contract extension in January after a bounce-back campaign in 2013.

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP

football formations

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24 Responses to SBI MLS Season Preview: Seattle Sounders

  1. Ian says:

    If the old Dempsey shows up, that is a very strong lineup.

  2. Big Red says:

    Seattle should play well when Evans is gone. He is not a right wing player. The insistence on making him one was Seattle’s undoing last year. If Seattle’s coach accidentally gets hit in the head and remembers the forward combo of Neagle-Martins was the best in the league last year then Seattle could go all the way. Until then, Seattle is stuck with Schmid and his love child Evans and another early playoff exit.

    • dfs says:

      If they play the formation that Jason drew out up there, and that’s a big if given that there are a lot of new pieces and Sigi’s never shown a fondness for a diamond midfield, then Evans will be playing narrowly and it’ll be Yedlin’s responsibility to fill that space on the right wing.

    • ben says:

      I agree with dfs… Yedlin will be running down Evans side all day. i acutally dont have an issue with this formation if that is what they actually play.

      im just SO glad Moffat and Caskey are gone. NOT good enough to be a starting midfielder.

      Ill hold off on cooper for now, but i also agree with Big Red. Neagle looked good last year and always seemed to make $hit happen. LOVE watching him play, and hope he can carve out a starting spot. If not… well that means Cooper is back to his 18 goal ways!

    • Ian says:

      Best forward combo was and is Keane & Donovan.

  3. Bobert says:

    how much is Seattle paying Dempsey a year?

  4. Dos says:

    Who would have thought that Clint Dempsey would end up being the most expensive DP bust of the recent era?

    • TheSoccerDude says:

      I think Dempsey shows up this year.

    • craig says:

      9 games doesn’t even come close to enough for you to claim a bust. Or was Bergkamp a bust too?

    • Gary Page says:

      Tim Cahill scored 1 goal in his first 20 games for the Red Bulls, 8 in his next 20. He scored a brace yesterday for Australia vs. Ecuador. You need to give a player moving to a new league and/or a new team at least a full season to make a decent evaluation.

      • Dos says:

        It’s part trolling, part self loathing – hopefully he gets off to a great start, but I don’t know where that would come from right now, it will be June before we know it, and Clint’s going to be able to afford some really nice fishing trips in the net few years to reminisce on what could have been in Brazil . . . there aren’t even any flashes of anything there, and I will always blame Seattle’s money for this.

      • Brian says:

        This isn’t a new league for Clint. He played here for 3 years, he knows enough about MLS that he does not need this excuse. If Valeri can make the quick transition for Portland there shouldn’t be a problem for Clint to do it as well. I am willing to write off last season, Seattle was a bit of a mess and I don’t think Clint had anything to do with it. If he still looks poor before the World Cup then I will be worried about him.

    • divers suck says:

      Remember David Beckham his first 2 or 3 years? Give Deuce a bit of a chance before anointing him a “DP bust”…That said, in a World Cup year and Deuce being average (at best) since leaving Fulham for Spurs. His leash needs to be shortened.

  5. Quit whining about soccer in the US says:

    Joe Roth may think the beginning of the end was the late season Red Bulls game, but that is because he doesn’t know soccer well. The beginning of the end was the first preseason game loss to the Timbers. The Sounders were outplayed all season by the good teams of the league.

    Sometimes they pulled out points, most time they didn’t, but they were always outplayed. First place late in the season ? Sure after they beat the non-playoff teams all summer. The other parts of the season was very dissappointing to follow. Losing to the Timbers in the playoffs was maybe the most predictable series in the playoffs.

    Sigi is on the hot seat and if Joe Roth understood soccer better, he wouldn’t be..he would be gone.
    We will see what he does this year….Tons of talent.

    • milbo says:

      2013 in a nutshell

    • Gary Page says:

      As I recall, Sigi has won an MLS championship at both LA and Columbus. Maybe, just maybe, he knows how to coach and losing Obafemi Martins to injury so much had a lot to do with Seattle’s under performance. Oh, and Gspurning giving up some howlers and really playing poorly didn’t help either. Probably the worst GK in the league.

    • Jason Mitchell says:

      Regardless of what Roth does or doesn’t know about soccer, he is far from the only person inside or outside the organization to point to the New York draw as the beginning of the end. Off the top of my head, Brad Evans, Zach Scott, Sigi Schmid, and Adrian Hanauer have all said it.

      It’s true they piled up wins against some bad and mediocre teams and had some good luck along the way, but it’s definitely a stretch to say the Sounders were “always” outplayed by good teams last summer. Heck, just two weeks before the draw with NYRB, the Sounders thoroughly outplayed RSL on the way to a 2-0 win that knocked Salt Lake out of first place and left the Sounders with the best record in the league.

  6. Travis says:

    I am not sure that Cooper is the starter, Neagle and Martins combined really well last year together. Neagle earned playing time last year and he is much better up top, hope he gets a shot again.

    • SteveE says:

      Cooper is the starter until he gives it up. Cooper has the potential for up to 18. When he plays the full season and starts he scores. His worst years he played 15, 14, and started 19/31 played. 18, 8, 18, 11 is what he scores when he starts more than 26 games. If he can get close to that flow, he will be better than Neagle

    • Brian says:

      Neagle was playing terribly at the end of the season. Perhaps it wasn’t his fault, but he looked rattled in the playoffs. His two yellow cards in the playoffs was very uncharacteristic considering he drew just 1 in his entire MLS career before that. It may have been due to the inconsistency of Sounders last season, but Neagle just didn’t look good at the end. Sigi will probably start his favorite player instead of the guy who has the best chance to score so maybe Neagle will get the start anyways.

  7. Andy in Atlanta says:

    The whole Dempsey is a bust is so laughable… I liken it to how fans treated Eddie Johnson after he failed to set the world a light in Europe (save a nice spell with Aris). A few bad games and then the hearsay among the US soccer community explodes to FACT and everyone just jumps on the bandwagon that he “sucks”… turn the page and 2 years later Eddie Johnson has a very legit chance of making the World Cup squad…

    Players have ups and downs and Dempsey’s current “slump” is just that… he was injured during most of the MLS matches and Fulham are disaster with or without him… he was not nearly as bad as people claim (I watched all the matches he played in save the FA cup game vs Norwich)… Also yesterday vs Ukraine… he was not horrible there either… he was badly missing Michael Bradley and basically had to do SKs job for him… that is not Clint’s true role…

    • Gary Page says:

      As someone who has followed US soccer closely for almost 25 years and watched Dempsey in particular, I couldn’t agree more. As i have repeatedly tried to point out, we don’t know enough to reach sweeping conclusions. If you think about it, Clint has been on 4 different teams (Fulham, Tottenham, Seattle, then a different Fulham again) in the last 3 years and has had 5 different coaches and had to play different roles on each different team. Mix in the fact that he has had a number of injuries (none major, thankfully), no pre-season training last year, and it becomes understandable that he hasn’t played his best during some periods of that stretch.

  8. peterjh says:

    Gonzalo Pineda signed yesterday. Kevin Parsemain likely to be signed shortly. That’s some quality depth the Sounders are adding (in addition to what this article says).