The Seattle Sounders set the blueprint for all of the incoming MLS expansion franchises to follow.
A well-run organization that put together a fine product on the pitch—and was heavily supported by legions of fans—made the Sounders one of the top stories in all of Major League Soccer last season.
This year, the Sounders will be out to prove that they are neither a novelty nor a fluke. They will look to build upon their first-round playoff finish last season.
On paper they look to continue on that path, as the Sounders return the core of their team from last season.
Captain and goalkeeper Kasey Keller returns to lead a defense that tied for the least amount of goals surrendered.
Also returning are designated player and midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, 2009 Newcomer of the Year Freddy Montero, and Defender of the Year finalist Jhon Kennedy Hurtado.
These four were the biggest reasons for Seattle’s success last season.
Keller and Ljungberg have countless years of experience at the international level and at some of the world’s biggest clubs, as well as World Cup experience. They, along with Hurtado, helped anchor arguably the league’s best defense.
Two returning players to look out for breakout seasons from are last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Steve Zakuani, and defender Brad Evans.
Zakuani can play both forward and as an attacking midfielder. He is a quick and agile player who likes to go at players one-on-one. Last year he played in 29 of the team’s 30 league games and posted four goals and four assists.
The numbers aren’t that impressive, but he is only a year removed from leading all collegiate players in goals (20) and points (47) at Akron. The tools are there, and with his first year under his belt, especially under the tutelage of a prolific goal scorer in Montero, Zakuani is poised for a bigger year.
Evans is a defensive midfielder who, even though he is only 24 years old, continues to gain more and more invaluable experience. Before coming to Seattle, Evans started all four of the Columbus Crew’s playoff games en route to winning the MLS Cup.
Over the summer he played in the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament for the USA, and this offseason he was a part of the U.S. men’s national team training camp and came on as a late sub against El Salvador.
Already a solid and steady player, Evans keeps moving on to bigger and better things. While he isn’t really a candidate to make this summer’s World Cup squad, just being in that environment—going to practice against other top players competing to earn the right to go to South Africa and getting more international experience—is invaluable and will only continue to make Evans a better player.
Going into the season, the Sounders only lose one player that saw significant playing time from last year’s roster—forward Sebastian Le Toux, who was selected by Philadelphia in the expansion draft. In 28 games, Le Toux was only able to manage one goal and three assists.
Seattle went out and got not only a replacement, but an upgrade by signing Swiss international Blaise Nkufo.
Nkufo is currently on the Dutch squad FC Twente, where he has been the leading scorer all six seasons he’s played there (excluding the current campaign). Although he is 34 years old, he still has quite the panache for finding the back of the net for both club and country.
Nfuko, however, will not be available until after Switzerland’s run in the World Cup is over.
While no deal is official yet, it has been highly speculated that Seattle will add defender Jeff Parke to an already staunch defensive unit.
Parke was originally selected by the Sounders in the expansion draft, but no contract could be agreed upon. Still without a contract, Parke was invited back to training camp with Seattle and has performed quite well.
A member of the New York Red Bulls for five seasons, Parke was the team’s Defender of the Year in 2007 and was a constant on the back line. Word is he still plays at a starter-quality level. Whether he finds himself in the starting 11 for Seattle, if a deal does get done, remains in question, but he will most certainly add to an already strong group.
The few additions the Sounders made in the offseason continue to push the team in the right direction, but the continuity of the roster from year one to year two is even more important.
Maintaining a good chemistry really helps build a successful club, as the players gradually become familiar with their roles, the expectations the coaching staff has of them, and the system and playing style in place.
The Sounders will not rest on their laurels after a successful first season that saw them win the U.S. Open Cup. They are already one of the best teams in the league, and the MLS Cup is what they are after.
The journey—provided the Collective Bargaining Agreement issue is finally resolved—begins in a nationally televised game on Thursday, March 25, when the Sounders will host the MLS team that will try to follow in their footsteps, the expansion Philadelphia Union.