Two years in the MLS has brought the Seattle Sounders two US Open Cup titles, two playoff appearances and two first round playoff losses while only scoring one goal in the four playoff games.
Seattle has some of the craziest and loudest fans in the MLS, fans that are looking for more than another US Open Cup banner hanging from the rafters. This year they are looking for a MLS Cup to add.
That won’t be easy. Hell, the West won’t be easy either. Not only will there be the Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake and Houston to battle with this season, Portland and Vancouver join the MLS to challenge Seattle in the Northwest corner.
On paper, the 2011 Seattle Sounders look young and strong. They should dominate the new neighbor teams in Portland and Vancouver to take the Cascadia Cup. They should also make the playoffs again and go far in the postseason. While not a top shelf team, Seattle is definitely close to being one of the top teams in the league.
Head coach Sigi Schmid is 26-17-17 in his third season leading the Sounders. He will benefit from a full season with Blaise Nkufo, as well as having no World Cup break in the middle of the season.
New Sounders for 2011 include midfielder Erik Friberg from Sweden, forward Lamar Neagle from Finland, forward O’Brian White, and defender Micheal Tetteh.
The big departures for 2011 are defender Tyrone Marshall (to Colorado), midfielder Sanna Nyassi (to Colorado), and defender Nathan Sturgis (to Toronto).
Of the subtractions, Seattle will likely miss Nyassi the most. Marshall provided key veteran leadership in the back line in 2009 but by 2010 had lost his starting position. After Marshall’s replacement, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, went down with an injury, Marshall showed why he lost his starting job.
Before the defensive issues though, Seattle suffered last season from a massive shortage of offense despite Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani each scoring 10 goals. Another veteran leader from 2009, midfielder Freddie Ljungberg spent most of his 2010 time in Seattle arguing with the officials instead of leading and was gone to Chicago by the middle of the season.
Ljungberg’s departure led to a jumpstart for the offense, only to have Hurtado go down. That injury sprung a leak in the defense that veteran Marshall proved a year removed from being able to plug.
Seattle’s starting lineup has not changed, so look for it to play in either a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2 formation. The linchpin for either layout will be midfielder Osvaldo Alonso. He plays the center role, launching the attacks or dropping back to slow down the opposition. As in chess, controlling the center of the field is the key to controlling the game. How Alonso performs will go a long way towards how the Sounders perform in 2011.
Up front will be speedy wunderkind Fredy Montero pairing with big Swiss International Blaise Nkufo in what is hoped to be a lightning and thunder combination. Montero’s ball skills and ability to create, combined with Nkufo’s experience and size should create matchup problems and scoring opportunities galore.
In the midfield feeding the forwards the ball with Alonso will be Zakuani, Brad Evans, and Alvaro Fernandez. This is where Alonso plays the key role. If he can control the center of the field, the Sounders like to push Zakuani and Evans forward up the sidelines. Zakuani, in particular, is a speed demon that can punish defenses. Evans has spells of brilliance mixed in with head-pounding frustrations.
The defensive line has Hurtado taking up the leadership role with James Riley, Jeff Parke, and Leo Gonzales. Gonzales arrived last year to shore up the left side of the line with excellent results.
In goal is top keeper Kasey Keller. Keller is doing his farewell tour and frankly, it might not be a moment too soon. Like Marshall, Keller appeared to lose a step last season, but I feel a large part of Seattle’s defensive woes were more to do with Keller’s defensive line letting him down more than anything else. Keller is reaching the end of his career, true, but he is the personification of the crafty veteran. Keller is so good at anticipating the attack and directing traffic that he makes up for any diminishing physical skills.
On the bench are the exciting prospects Friberg and White joining subs Patrick Ianni and Nate Jaqua. The Sounders are hoping that the young midfielders can create opportunities to launch attacks from Nkufo and Montero. All four give head coach Sigi Schmid options for the starting line up as well as injecting pace and energy off the bench.
From the limited time I saw Friberg and White in the preseason, both players look like great pick-ups with oodles of potential.
On the downside, defensive depth is a weakness for the Sounders bench. Seattle isn’t a particularly deep team and injuries to Alonso or any of the defensive line could spell disaster.
The season starts off as 2010 ended, facing the LA Galaxy. Seattle played LA five times in 2010, winning only once. Figuring out how to turn that ratio around against the best team in the West will go a long way towards Seattle moving onto the top shelf of MLS.
Everyone knows that the matches aren’t played on paper. The Sounders showed a frustrating tendency to get paralyzed at the worst possible time last season. How far Seattle goes this year is up to the Sounders. They have all the right weapons.
Photo credit/copyright: gosounders.com