The lineup conundrums for Sigi Schmid range all over the field.
With reserve games starters resembling a solid MLS lineup, the Sounders FC claim one of the deepest rosters in the league.
Among those positions of depth is center back, where the Sounders have four players with MLS experience, three of which have seen extensive playing time in MLS play over the last two seasons for Seattle.
That enables Schmid to rest Jhon Kennedy Hurtado when the head coach sees a slight dip in form that may have been a forbearer of greater problems as Hurtado recovered from knee surgery, as he did for two matches before returning the Colombian defender to the starting 11 in a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Fire last week. Patrick Ianni was solid in his place for those two matches and Jeff Parke has provided stability in the other center back role.
That competition has entailed an elevation in the level of play for all three players.
“Every time you have somebody competing against you it makes you better,” said Parke, who has played all 450 minutes of the young season. “It keeps you on your toes. It keeps you sharp. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting better and helping the team out whatever way you can. That’s the main goal.”
That battle instills confidence in goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who sees all the work first-hand in front of his net.
“I think the coaching staff knows that anyone who steps in can do the job for us,” he said. “That keeps that good competition so the guys who are playing have to be on their toes and perform because there is somebody fighting at practice every day waiting for their chance.”
Hurtado started the first two matches, both 1-0 losses, then was supplanted by Ianni for the following two matches. However, he neither sulked nor pouted, instead taking his aggression out on the reserve matches that he played instead, showing his desire to get back in the lineup.
With Hurtado returning to the pitch energized and on a mission after watching from the bench for two matches, it showed just how competitive he is – wanting nothing more than to stay off the bench in future matches.
“There’s never any player who’s happy about sitting on the bench. If they are going to be happy about sitting on the bench they’re in the wrong job,” Schmid said. “He’s a good pro and he accepted it and moved on and took his next opportunity.”
Although the three center backs, four when you include Taylor Graham, are not necessarily identical parts, they can play in any combination without great lapses or changes in roles. Parke said the only thing that changes when Hurtado is in the game, as opposed to Ianni or Graham, is the volume of his voice.
“I have to be more vocal, but other than that, he likes to battle, so it’s good. Anytime you have a guy of that caliber back there it helps the team in all aspects,” Parke said. “He’s back and it’s good to have him. He’s a good strong physical presence. It makes the game a bit easier when you have a guy who’s rock solid back there – Ianni is too, so it’s great to have either one.”
The starter doesn’t make a difference to Keller either.
“We’re in a situation now with four good center backs,” he said. “The combination is really a case of who is playing well at the time and who steps in and plays well to keep their position.”
As the Sounders prepare to face the Philadelphia Union for the first time since falling 3-1 there in July of 2010, they do so with even more confidence in their defensive unit.
Against the Union, defense has proven vital in 2011. Each of their matches have ended 1-0, three in Union victories and one in a defeat. If the match on Saturday is that tight, the game could come down to the play of the center backs.
With his options, Schmid is optimistic the Sounders will continue their three-game unbeaten streak.