In the 2011 season, the Sounders FC were left with the thought of what could have been.
Early in the season, Fredy Montero missed a few games and was then limited by a fractured wrist. That, however, would be among the least of the team’s injury woes as the season wore on. Steve Zakuani suffered a season-ending fractured leg against the Colorado Rapids in just the seventh match of the season and upstart forward O’Brian White also had his season halted at that point because of blood clots in his leg.
Various players shuffled in and out of the lineup with much less serious injuries, yet the team still marched on with little effect on the end-results. Then, with five games to play before the playoffs, Mauro Rosales suffered a knee sprain that knocked him out all but 36 minutes of the rest of the season.
While the curiosity of how the season may have been different without those major injury blows and if things may have changed in the final match if Brad Evans and Alvaro Fernandez weren’t injured in the first 20 minutes of the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal series with Real Salt Lake may still linger in their minds, the Sounders FC is now focused intently on the 2012 season as they start the off-season.
“Obviously we’re missing guys like Steve Zakuani and O’Brian White and Rosales. At key moments for us it certainly hurt our team and having those guys back will help our team, but now we need to take that final jump,” head coach Sigi Schmid said. “Based on the regular season, we were the second best team. We want to be the first team now. We want to go after the Supporters’ Shield and go after the MLS Cup next year so we just got to take that jump forward from here.”
While the possible additions of those key cogs to Seattle’s lineup will certainly boost their chances in 2012, it’s not nearly as simple as plugging a 10-goal scorer in Zakuani into the lineup and pressing forward from there.
Schmid anticipates many more changes to the team that will take the field for Seattle in 2012 as they look to improve on a season that saw them reach the playoffs for the third straight season, win the US Open Cup for the third straight season, finish second in MLS and reach the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
“You look around and it’s never the same group from one year to another,” he said. “You’re always going to make some changes. It’s just the nature of the job and the nature of professional sports, but I think we’re at a stage right now where we need to add a piece here or there.”
One of the obvious changes will come at goalkeeper, where Kasey Keller retired to put an end to an illustrious 19-year career that spanned England, Spain and Germany before the Olympia native returned to Seattle for his final three pro seasons.
Seattle had Terry Boss and rookies Josh Ford and Bryan Meredith on the roster this season, but there is no guarantee that Keller’s incumbent will come out of that group.
One element that will likely be taken into consideration when selecting the next starter is the lofty shadow left by a legend in Keller.
“I think if you hand Kasey’s job to a rookie or you hand it to a very young goalkeeper then it becomes a big shadow. We’re looking more for a veteran guy, so I think that will help with that transition,” Schmid said. “Our objective is not to replace Kasey. We don’t want the guy thinking about, ‘Oh, I hope I can do this as well as Kasey.’ It’s just a matter of going out there and being yourself and establishing yourself.”
Another factor in off-season maneuvering is likely to be the urgency in play as the Sounders prepare for their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal matchup with Santos Laguna. After starting the season with MLS First Kick in each of the club’s first three seasons, Seattle will now start earlier than ever as they play the first leg of the series at CenturyLink Field March 6-8.
That will mean they will need to be much sharper much earlier in training camp, as Santos Laguna will be in the midst of their season.
“Obviously we know we have something very important at play right at the beginning of the year,” Schmid said. “That means better preparation in the offseason and a little alteration in how we go through our training regimen in preseason.”
The MLS off-season calendar includes the following key dates:
Monday, November 21 - Expansion Draft Protected Lists Submitted
Wednesday, November 23 - Montreal Expansion Draft
Monday, December 5 - Re-Entry Draft, Stage 1
Monday, December 12 - Re-Entry Draft, Stage 2
Thursday, January 12, 2012 – MLS SuperDraft