Best in the West? Sounders' new challenge is marathon, not sprint
It has been barely two months since the Seattle Sounders lifted MLS Cup, a dramatic midseason turnaround culminating in their first league championship.
In Seattle, that timeframe feels even briefer than that. Step one in the Sounders’ title defense will be simply dealing with the fact that some key players hardly had an offseason at all.
Jordan Morris, Chad Marshall, Brad Evans and Stefan Frei were all called into January camp with the U.S. men’s national team. Frei, who was named MLS Cup MVP in December, suffered an ankle injury while with the U.S. that could keep him out of the season opener against Houston.
Star forward Clint Dempsey has been cleared to play after missing the stretch run of last year with an irregular heartbeat, but his role for the first few months of this campaign remains uncertain. Fellow Designated Player Nicolas Lodeiro showed up a few days late to Sounders camp, coach Brian Schmetzer calling it an excused absence due to the fact that he hadn’t had a meaningful break in more than a year.
“Truthfully, I was tired at the end of the season,” Lodeiro told local reporters through a translator. “It was a long, long year.”
That it was, Nicolas. An exhilarating one, too.
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Practically every match was a must-win from the moment Lodeiro signed from Boca Juniors, and Schmetzer took over from longtime coach Sigi Schmid late last July. Seattle was 10 points out of the Western Conference playoff spots at the time, and its postseason status remained in doubt up until the final day of the regular season.
Schmetzer was rightfully lauded for his ability to infuse a sense of urgency into his locker room. It remains to be seen whether that message will resonate as deeply in April as it did last October, when the consequences were clearer cut.
Even the coach himself confided last week that he wasn’t sure he had an answer to that particular question, that some of that would come through trial and error during his first full season as an MLS head coach.
That’s not, Schmetzer says, his primary concern as the regular season approaches. His biggest fear is replacing the loss of several influential veterans – not just on the field, but perhaps especially off it.
Zach Scott, who made more than 350 career appearances for the club between its minor-league and MLS eras, retired in December after 15 seasons. Nelson Valdez, Andreas Ivanschitz, Erik Friberg and Tyrone Mears had their contract options declined two days after the championship game they all played in.
All of which is to say that the title defense will not be easy. Seattle need only to look a few hundred miles south to Portland -- where the Timbers missed the playoffs in 2016 a season after winning the Pacific Northwest’s first MLS Cup – as evidence of that. There will likely be bumps in the road, especially early on.
There is also a case to be made that the Sounders are still the best team in the Western Conference.
In keeping with general manager Garth Lagerwey’s vision of a younger, leaner roster, they replaced most of those outgoing veterans with like-for-like alternates.
Harry Shipp will likely be a Day 1 starter on the wing, where Ivanschitz used to roam. Will Bruin is a proven MLS goalscorer who provides depth up top, and Gustav Svensson will fill the Friberg role behind the establish midfield partnership of Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan. Evans will be repurposed as a full-time right back following Mears’ departure to Atlanta United FC.
This roster might not be as proven as the version that won MLS Cup. But it might be deeper and better equipped to deal with the attrition of the marathon regular season if it can weather some early growing pains.
During the brief window between Lodeiro’s arrival and Dempsey being shut down for the season, Seattle’s attack was as fearsome as any in the league. Young players like Morris, Roldan and left back Joevin Jones, all of whom made significant strides forward last season, only figure to better as they continue to grow into their roles.
With no other obvious favorite out West, it’s fair to call the reigning champions the team to beat until proven otherwise.