Today was the first day of training camp for the Sounders FC.
But make no mistake, this wasn’t the first day on the field for anybody on the roster.
“You’re always training four or five times before you come into preseason so you don’t come in the first day and look like an idiot,” goalkeeper and captain Kasey Keller laughed.
It was however, the first official step toward the 2011 MLS Cup and while the Sounders don’t play their first regular season match until March 15 when they open the MLS season at MLS First Kick against the LA Galaxy at Qwest Field, they had a certain intensity that showed that they are hungry for that first match.
For many, it was the first time they had played together since the season ended with a playoff loss to the Galaxy on November 7 at the Home Depot Center.
“Those of us who were on the pitch at the Home Depot in November have been looking forward to this day for a while. That pain is still there in some of us,” midfielder Steve Zakuani said. “It’s going to be a long two months, but today is just a day to get your feet under you and start the quest to try and get to MLS Cup.”
The team returns a strong core of players that have earned two consecutive playoff berths and two straight US Open Cup titles – both unprecedented in an MLS club’s first two seasons. Back is Keller for his final season as a professional. Also back are eight other players who started in the playoffs for the Sounders, including top scorers Fredy Montero (10 G, 10 A) and Zakuani (10 G, 6 A) and club MVP Osvaldo Alonso. Include late-season additions Blaise Nkufo and Alvaro Fernandez, the returns of Brad Evans and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and the off-season addition of Erik Friberg and the competition for starting roles is heated all over the field.
That was apparent from the onset for head coach Sigi Schmid.
“The first day everybody is going to come out with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I thought the spirit was good, I thought the intensity was good,” he said. “Everybody showed up to play.”
Now in their third season, Schmid told the large crowd of gathered media that this was a vital season for the core of players that Seattle has assembled. Many of Seattle’s regular starters are in their third season with the Sounders and with two straight playoff appearances, but only one goal to show for it, they need to show their mettle.
“This is year three so we’ve had a core of players,” Schmid said. “This is the year that if we don’t accomplish some of the things that we feel we can accomplish then you’ve got to start looking at breaking up that core. So this is an important year.”
That group is also gaining some traction as a formidable team. Only four teams reached the playoffs in 2009 and 2010 and the Sounders count themselves among those four. They also rank fourth in the league in points over the past two seasons.
They aren’t about to rest on that early success though, and this training camp will be a telltale sign of those intentions.
“We definitely fell short last year. We were a better team and we need to prove that this year,” Zakuani said.
To get over that hump, the Sounders added a skilled midfielder in Friberg, along with depth in forward O’Brian White in a trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps, at midfield in SuperDraft pick Servando Carrasco and defender with a combination of SuperDraft selections Michael Tetteh and Leone Cruz and a trade for former Colorado Rapids defender Danny Earls.
However the most valuable addition may prove to be the year of experience that Seattle gained in 2010. Between a roller coaster MLS season, a US Open Cup run, a struggle in CONCACAF Champions League play and another first-round exit from the MLS Cup Playoffs, there were a lot of important lessons learned and experiences gained.
The players now see what they need to do to reach the next echelon and get to their ultimate goal of and MLS Cup title.
“We need to push ourselves just a little bit more,” Schmid said. “We need to demand more of ourselves and demand more of each other and that’s got to be a theme that runs through us all season.”
Tuesday was just the first step toward that goal, but it was an important step. And if the smiles on the faces walking off the field were any indication, it was a positive step.
The Sounders continue training at Starfire on Wednesday before testing sessions at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center on Thursday and Friday. Saturday will be a day off before the club travels to Casa Grande, Arizona, for the second leg of training camp on Sunday.