Battle at Midway

Battle at Midway

The Sounders stand at 6-4-7 at the halfway point of the MLS season but coach Sigi Schmid believes they have much room to improve.

With their 1-0 victory over Toronto FC on Saturday, the Sounders FC officially reached the halfway point in the season, taking with them a 6-4-7 record and third place standing in the MLS Western Conference.

Even still, they get no better than a B-minus grade from head coach Sigi Schmid and owner/general manager Adrian Hanauer.

“I think we've been a little better than average, but I think we can achieve more,” Schmid said. “We can do better. I think the guys know that.”

The Sounders reached this stage getting only five full matches from Steve Zakuani after he suffered a fractured right leg against the Colorado Rapids and seven from O’Brian White, who has been out since the Colorado match after he underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from his leg. At the time of their injuries, Zakuani and White led the club with two goals and two assists each and showed promise that more could be coming.

In their absence, Schmid has looked to Lamar Neagle, Erik Friberg, Brad Evans, Mauro Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez to fill in around midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and Nate Jaqua and Mike Fucito at the forward position.

And while the offense has struggled at times without two key cogs, the defense has been rock steady through most of the first half of the season.

Only three times all season have they allowed more than one goal - in 2-2 draws with the San Jose Earthquakes and Vancouver Whitecaps and in a 2-1 loss to DC United. Otherwise, they have five shutouts to build a 0.88 goals against average for Kasey Keller.

“All things considered, I still think we’re in a pretty good place and given our anticipated plans, whether it be bringing guys back from injuries or potential summer targets, I think we’ll have a good second half of the season,” Hanauer said.

Hanauer has made allusions to the possible acquisition of a big-name designated player, but has also said that they will look down several avenues to find the best fit to propel the Sounders toward their goals in the second half of the season.

The logical thought is that any addition, whether it be the return of White or Zakuani or an incoming player from outside the team, would boost goal-scoring.

At the midway point, Evans has unexpectedly been Seattle’s top scorer with four goals, though Fredy Montero’s free kick Saturday against Toronto was his third goal on the year. Montero has a propensity to go on goal-scoring runs and his goal Saturday may just be the catalyst he needs to get back the scoring touch that saw him score 22 goals in his first two seasons in MLS.

However, increased offensive output can’t come at the expense of the defense that has been among the top in the league.

“There’s no point scoring a bunch of goals and then conceding a bunch of goals,” Keller said. “If we keep doing what we’re doing at the back and just pop a few more goals in we’ll be in a great spot.”

One thing the Sounders have on their side is an ability to incorporate new players and work around several competitions.

Last season, they added Blaise Nkufo and Alvaro Fernandez in the middle of the season and, through a run in the US Open Cup and eight matches in the CONCACAF Champions League, were able to go on a run of nine straight unbeaten against MLS opponents and another of seven unbeaten, along with a 10-2-3 record in the final 15 matches of the season.

While the Sounders have had a strong place in the standings through 17 matches, it has been devoid of any extended runs like the one that elevated them in the second half of the 2010 season. Currently on a four-match unbeaten string, they also have a run of six matches from March 25 to May 4 that helped them, but none of the caliber of the momentum they gained last season.

“It probably gives us a little bit of confidence going into the second half,” Hanauer said. “You’d never like to have to always rely on having a good second half of the season to show that you’re a good team. We talked about that at the end of last year and we wanted to put together two very good half-seasons and while I don’t think it’s been an atrocious half season, it hasn’t quite been what we hoped.”

The key will be consistency - not just from game-to-game, but also within the 90 minutes of a match. For every moment like Montero’s goal on Saturday and Jeff Parke’s stoppage time header to beat Sporting Kansas City, there have been momentarily lapses that have kept Seattle from earning points against the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls and turned three points into two as it did with wonder-strikes from San Jose’s Khari Stephenson and Vancouver’s Eric Hassli.

“We've done well at times, we’ve had some very good moments, but then we’ve had moments where we haven’t been as good,” Schmid said. “We've just got to get rid of those valleys, and that will take us up a level. But the team continues to fight, the team continues to battle, and I’m very happy with that.”

The second half of the season gets off to a rapid start when the Sounders host the New York Red Bulls Thursday night and the New England Revolution Sunday afternoon at Qwest Field.

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