The Sounders FC offseason is just over one week old and already the club is looking forward to the start of the 2011 season.
There is plenty that needs to be accomplished between now and then – namely the MLS Cup Final on Sunday between the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas – but late January when the team will start its third training camp is really just around the corner.
This week, the Sounders started optional training sessions at Starfire and individual player meetings with the technical staff as they all embark on their off-seasons. And while it is billed as a celebration of the league and a tremendous season, the MLS Cup Final is just a bitter reminder of what might have been.
“I really felt that we could easily be there,” goalkeeper and captain Kasey Keller said. “We’re not, so we have to learn from it. It’s frustrating, but at the end of the year, there will be 15 teams that have the same speech that we had. It could be better and the goal is to win the MLS Championship. Only one team can do that.”
While Seattle will have to wait another year to accomplish that feat, it’s a long road to get to that point.
Among the things on the docket in the two months before the MLS SuperDraft is the 2010 expansion draft next week. Each team in the league will protect 11 players from their current roster and the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps will alternately pick ten players each from those left unprotected. After a player is chosen from one team, they are allowed to protect a 12th player and no team can lose more than two players.
It is expected that Seattle will lose two players in that draft as the two expansion sides begin building their inaugural rosters. Last season, the Philadelphia Union drafted Sebastian Le Toux, who went on to lead the team in goals and assists. This season, head coach Sigi Schmid expects another player who can contribute to an expansion squad.
“There’s a lot of dominos that go into that and it’s especially more difficult this year when you have two teams,” Schmid said, noting option prices, contract years and other factors that weigh into decisions. “It’s not a simple case of just take your starting lineup and there’s your 11. Obviously last year we lost Seba and it would’ve been great if we were able to protect him but if we hadn’t lost him we might have lost Riley or somebody else. We accept the fact that we are probably going to lose two good players but that’s just going to be it.”
While the team is likely to lose a player or two in the expansion draft, they will boost their roster in other avenues. They have four picks in the first two rounds of the SuperDraft in January after acquiring a second round pick from DC United in exchange for Stephen King and a conditional pick that will be either a first or second round pick from the Chicago Fire in exchange for Freddie Ljungberg.
Additionally, the re-entry draft offers the opportunity to add veteran players from around MLS and the team may also add more international talents after Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani were issued green cards.
Within the team, though, the Sounders will have the opportunity to play with five players from the start of the season that were only able to play half of the season, or in some cases less than half the season. Brad Evans missed the second half and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado played in just ten games, all because of injury. And Blaise Nkufo and Alvaro Fernandez both joined the team at midseason.
“It’s tough for Alvaro and for Blaise to come off a European season, a World Cup, very little time off … it makes for a long year,” Schmid said. “But certainly having those guys around for preseason, having Evans back into the fold, having Kennedy back into the fold, to a certain extent it’s almost like picking up four new guys.”
Additionally, Nate Jaqua is expected to be able to play with the team before the season opener next year. The veteran forward missed the first half of the season with a lower abdominal injury and underwent arthroscopic hip surgery on Friday.
And while the re-insertion of Jaqua, Evans and Hurtado and the inclusion of Nkufo and Fernandez from the start of the season will be valuable additions for the Sounders, they are not about to stand pat with the group they have.
“The group that I met with today is not going to be the same group that comes in next year. We have got to look a little bit at what happens in the expansion draft because that will determine a bit where we are going to look and what our needs are going to be,” Schmid said. “Our specific needs right now those are something we are going over, we are talking about and after the expansion draft we will go ahead full-steam.”
The futures of some Seattle stalwarts, Keller and Fredy Montero, may seem to be up in the air, but they will contend otherwise.
Keller is approaching his 41st birthday, but has no signs of slowing. In 2010, he registered 11 shutouts, up one from the previous season, and his plans include a third season with the Sounders FC.
“I would be very surprised if I’m not playing next year,” Keller said. “I feel great. Obviously you’re a little banged up after a season. I don’t know what I would do if I felt perfect at the end of a season – I think I would feel guilty that I didn’t do something right during the season. I’m just looking forward to the break and getting ready for preseason.”
Montero, meanwhile, has his name speculated about with each passing transfer window and his ten goals and ten assists in 2010 certainly don’t slow that conversation. While his future with the team may not be entirely clear, Montero says his focus is on playing for the Sounders FC.
“I’m just happy with what I’ve done this season and I’m happy with the team – the group of quality people that I’m playing with,” Montero said. “It’s been nice to be here for two years and win the US Open Cup and I look forward to another season so we can win the MLS Cup.”
So as the Sounders disperse for the off-season, there may be many questions about how the team will be constructed for the 2011 season. One thing that will go unchanged, though, is the end goal – winning MLS Cup.