MLS Season Preview: Seattle Sounders hope changes result in long-awaited MLS Cup title

Despite the unexpected loss of Obafemi Martins to China, the Sounders are still confident they can put together a championship season in 2016.

For the majority of their time in Major League Soccer, the Seattle Sounders have been considered a perennial contender for the MLS Cup title.

Since joining MLS in 2009, the Rave Green have made the playoffs in all of their seven seasons in the league and claimed the MLS Supporters’ Shield as the top club during the 2014 regular season. There is also a trophy cabinet full of Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup titles, with Seattle having etched its name on that trophy four times as an MLS outfit. It is also the holder of the fan-based Cascadia Cup after posting a better head-to-head record versus arch-rivals Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps.

SPOTLIGHT: STEFAN FREI

Entering his third season with the Sounders, Frei is keen to play a key role in Seattle’s quest to become MLS Cup champion.

Yet, for all that well-documented potential in recent years, the MLS Cup has been an elusive piece of silverware for one of the most popular and successful clubs in North America’s top flight.

The Achilles heel for Seattle has been the playoffs. Last season, the Emerald City club’s campaign came to an abrupt end in the Western Conference semifinals when FC Dallas dispatched of the Sounders in a penalty shootout after a highly dramatic second leg in Frisco, Texas.

As it embarks on its eighth season in MLS, Seattle’s objective remains the same. Overcome its previous woes in the postseason and become MLS champions in 2016.

“Our mantra as a club has been pretty consistent, in that we want to be a team that is always contending for titles and trophies, at the end of the day,” Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid told Goal USA. “I think we’ve been pretty consistent in our history about doing that year after year. We want to do better than we did last year by getting further and getting into the MLS Cup final and winning that elusive championship, plus do as well as we can in all the other tournaments.”

The phrase ‘nearly, but not quite’ could best sum up Seattle’s time in MLS to date. What adds more intrigue to the Sounders’ 2016 campaign is a heightened expectation to become champion after bitter rival Portland pipped them to the post in claiming its first MLS Cup title last season.

While Sounders supporters are sure to have such expectations, Schmid insists his squad is primarily focused on its own desire to succeed.

“The pressure comes from within. It comes from us,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any added pressure. We’ll take some stick from them (Portland), but there’s no added pressure.

“It’s fantastic that they won it. For them and their fans, it’s great. But for us, would we trade our first five years for their first five years (in MLS) when they missed the playoffs a number of times in that period? Probably not. Being consistent is great, but being consistent and never winning a championship is also not great, so we want to be a team that has been consistent but can win a championship.”

As the season unfolds, most observers are sure to take a close look at how the Sounders adjust to life without Obafemi Martins after the veteran striker’s decision to leave MLS for the riches of the Chinese Super League when he joined Shanghai Greenland Shenhua late last month. The Nigerian’s departure may see Schmid alter his tactics and use a 4-3-3 formation more regularly.

“It changes our team dynamic a little bit,” Schmid said. “I’ve always been a coach who feels that how you play as a team and the system you play is a function of the players that you have, so it’s going to change how we play a little bit. Collectively, we have to make up for the loss (of Martins).”

With the highly touted Jordan Morris embarking on his first professional season with Seattle, Schmid is likely to deploy the young American international in an attacking three alongside Nelson Valdez and Clint Dempsey, who will be expected to generate many of Seattle’s goals in 2016. However, Schmid stressed that more goals need to come from throughout his team this year.

“It doesn’t just put pressure on them (Dempsey and Valdez), it puts pressure on everybody,” he said. “We need to get more goals from midfield. We need to get more goals from set pieces. And we need Andreas Ivanschitz to get his fair share of goals. We need our outside backs to get more assists and set more things up, so all those are things that we have to do.”

SEATTLE SOUNDERS SEASON PREVIEW

2015 FINISH: Fourth in Western Conference (15-13-6), eliminated in conference semifinals

NOTABLE ADDITIONS: D Joevin Jones, M Michael Farfan, F Jordan Morris, M Nathan Sturgis

NOTABLE LOSSES: F Chad Barrett, D Leonardo Gonzalez, M Gonzalo Pineda, M Andy Rose, M Lamar Neagle, M Marco Pappa, F Obafemi Martins

TOP NEWCOMER: Jordan Morris. Capped at the senior international level by the United States before winning an NCAA championship title in his junior year at Stanford University, Morris has been one of American soccer’s most sought-after young talents. Though offered a chance to join German Bundesliga side Werder Bremen after a promising trial in January, the 21-year-old chose to start his professional career with hometown club Seattle – much to the delight and relief of the Sounders and MLS.

“Jordan is a pretty strong-minded and physically powerful player,” Schmid said. “I’ve known him for a long time now and he’s going to get opportunities to play for our team. I don’t think anybody should expect him to be a world-beater right away. It’s his first year in the professional ranks and there’s definitely an adjustment for that. But I also feel confident in his mental approach and his abilities that he’s going to be a guy who is going to be able to overcome some of those transitional challenges and play a significant role throughout the season.”

PLAYER TO WATCH: Andreas Ivanschitz. In need of a boost, the arrival of Ivanschitz during last summer’s transfer window helped the Sounders stop a horrible mid-season slide that could have threatened their hopes of making playoffs. The Austrian international made six league appearances during the second half of last season and is expected to play a bigger role for Seattle in 2016.

“He was an important player for us last year once we had signed him,” Schmid said. “After a little bit of an injury that kept him out, he came back and played an important role from a number of aspects. He’s a player that can create from underneath the forwards. He’s a player who can score from the run of play. He’s another player who is very dangerous from set pieces, as he is a very good server of the ball. He also brings good energy to the game.”

2016 OUTLOOK

Despite several offseason changes, Seattle has enough experience and firepower to be a top-three finisher in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. The chances of that translating into an MLS Cup title depends on if the team finds a way to replace Martins’ goals. It could see Seattle make a move in the summer transfer window to address any potential scoring deficiencies.

What may prove decisive to the Sounders season is its defensive durability. With Roman Torres sidelined until the summer with a long-term knee injury, Chad Marshall and Brad Evans must show all their experience in anchoring Seattle’s backline, while goalkeeper Stefan Frei will arguably need to have his best season in MLS this term. Should everything fall into place, Seattle’s long journey to becoming MLS champion may be realized.