On Thursday, the Sounders FC open their fourth MLS training camp at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center.
There are storylines aplenty as the team has dealt with its first overhaul of the roster with nine players departing from the 2011 team that won their third straight US Open Cup title, earned a quarterfinal berth in the CONCACAF Champions League and finished second in the race to the Supporters’ Shield. The team will deal with the retirement of captain Kasey Keller, as well as the departure of several other veteran components of the locker room. However, they will also see a full preseason with 2011 MLS Newcomer of the Year Mauro Rosales and the continuing growth of other young talents like Fredy Montero and Osvaldo Alonso.
The team has also looked to Europe in adding goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, Adam Johansson and Christian Sivebaek to bolster the roster. Couple those moves with the pending returns of Steve Zakuani and O’Brian White – though neither is a certainty to open the season on the active roster, and Seattle has plenty to look forward to in the 2012 season.
It all starts March 7, when the Sounders host Santos Laguna in the first game of their quarterfinal meeting with Santos Laguna in the Champions League, a series that will be completed before Seattle plays their first MLS match on March 17 against Toronto FC.
It will make for a whirlwind preseason for head coach Sigi Schmid, who sat down for a Q&A this week to reflect on the off-season and talk about the team’s preparations for 2012.
Q: Looking back on the offseason, you lost nine guys and have added to the team piece by piece. What are your thoughts?
Sigi Schmid: Did we lose nine guys? … Every year there’s going to be turnover. It’s never going to be the same team. You want some youth to come into the team so it keeps everything fresh. The vital areas, I think we addressed – with Gspurning in goal, Johansson as the right full back, Burch as the replacement for Tyson Wahl and Christian Sivebaek is someone that we think has potential to be a very affective wide player and I think we addressed some of that. With the draft choices that we’ve made – Duran has addressed the loss of some defenders and a guy who can double as a right back. With Sodade we have a big forward because we don’t know how long it’s going to take O’Brian White to get back. Right now the expectation is that this is the year that the Estradas and the Seamons of the world, and maybe even a Michael Tetteh, show that they can step up and play. The obstruction that was in front of them, in terms of veterans who were coming off the bench, are gone, so it’s there chance to prove that they are ready for it or it’s time to move on to the next batch of players.
Q: In the changes that were made, on the surface, the team looks younger. Was that a conscious decision to give younger players opportunities in the Open Cup, the Champions League and the Reserve League to make progress and plug those holes?
Schmid: It’s a little bit of both – we got younger, but the starting lineup stayed the same. We still have a veteran at goal and a veteran at right fullback. At the end of the day, I would prefer to say that we are going healthier. When you look at the guys we lost, with the exception of James Riley, it’s not massive minutes that we lost. For now it’s a chance for those guys that have been in the system for 2-3 years, it’s their chance to show. A guy like Michael Seamon, who had a very good rookie year for us, floundered a bit last year, so he needs to show that he can get back to what he was able to do. Here’s a guy who has been with us for two years, he’s played in CONCACAF games, he’s been around the team, he knows what’s expected of him and he knows the system. The same thing with David Estrada. He really came on at the end of last year and so it’s time for them to push all the way through and stake their claim.
Q: Looking at the injuries at the end of the year, you lost Steve Zakuani and O’Brian White, but also ended the year without Brad Evans, Alvaro Fernandez and Mauro Rosales because of injury. How much of a boost is it to add those three and where are the expectations for O’Brian and Steve right now?
Schmid: The injuries played a role at the end of last year. Steve Zakuani is making progress, but once you get back into the day-to-day grind it becomes a different type of progression. How soon he will be able to get back on the field for us in an MLS game is hard for me to predict. O’Brian White is probably a little farther behind. He’s probably still a couple of months from being able to train in full with us and the big hurtle is to find out if he can train hard and not have another reoccurrence of the blood clot. I think Mauro Rosales, his MCL is something that’s behind him and I think Brad Evans has had a good camp with the national team, so the ankle sprain is something that’s behind him. Alvaro had a little knock, but we really want to work hard with him physically because as the season wears on he gets weaker and weaker. Hopefully his base will be stronger this year after we’ve identified some things he needed to work on. Much like Ozzie Alonso. When you look at his minutes in year three compared to years one and two, they were significantly increased because he bought into what we wanted him to do. That’s what we hope to do with the other guys as well.
Q: Is that the same thing you hope to see from Fredy Montero? Not in terms of minutes, but maybe in terms of consistency throughout the year.
Schmid: Fredy’s usually pretty resilient, but for him it’s been a continuing process of maturation. He’s matured a lot and he’s adapted to the tempo of the game and he’s shown himself to be a consistent goalscorer in the league. All goalscorers go through streaks. I remember when Eddie Johnson scored a ton of goals for Kansas City, but he had like two hat tricks, so when you look at the games that he actually scored in, it wasn’t as impressive. Fredy’s not a hat trick type of guy, so usually his goals get spread out. And then when you look at his goals and assists, he’s usually involved in something for us. As he continues to improve, finding a way to get a goal or an assist in big games and in critical moments is something that will continue to get better.
Q: On the surface, this team has a lot of depth in the midfield. How do you view that situation?
Schmid: There certainly are options at the wide midfield positions, which we have to have right now because of Steve’s situation. The middle of midfield is maybe a little bit thinner and we’ve even thought about playing Fernandez inside a little bit more because we have a few more options outside, especially with Lamar and how things come along with Sivebaek. Inside, we were able to pick up a guy like Andy Rose who can play in the middle of midfield, Duran even pushed up in the combine to play central midfield. Then Carrasco and Seamon’s development gives us some midfielders there too. It’s all a matter of who pushes through and who commands what. Then you always have Roger Levesque who can play forward if we have too many midfielders or can play right back if we have enough forwards. He just plugs the hole where we don’t have enough depth. Maintaining our depth is important, especially with the competitions we are in.
Q: With the early start to the season, how do you adjust camp to prepare for a March 7 kickoff?
Schmid: I’ve never been a big believer in starting things off with full-blown double days. I think it’s important to let people’s bodies get used to the daily grind again. I’ve always been one to give the team a week to roll into it, then we start working really hard. From that standpoint we are trying to maintain the same schedule. Normally as we go into the start of the season we need our top guys to be 75 minutes fit and then see how they push through in the last 15. But with the importance of the game and Santos being in the middle of their season, it’s a more difficult situation because we need our guys to be more prepared. As we start leaving Arizona, the plan for the guys that we see playing significant minutes, we might see them go into a slightly different training rhythm than some of the other players.
Q: What was your reaction when Jeff and Brad got called into US camp?
Schmid: When Jurgen called me, we kind of chuckled because one of the things we talked about was that he would get some cancellations in the January camp. He didn’t think so, but when he called me he said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. We got some cancellations.’ Then he asked for Brad and Jeff and I was happy that he wanted to look at them. Brad’s been there before and I’m happy for him to get another look and I’m happy for Jeff because it’s his first look. My main caution to them was that the other guys in the camp already knew they were going in, so they might have had a different preparation leading into the camp. They’ve both reported back and they’ve said the training was something that they felt good about. Then Johansson getting called into Sweden was also good. One of the things that we wanted to make sure of when we brought him over here was that by him signing with us, that wouldn’t affect his ability to play with the national team. Then obviously, he brought him in. So when those guys come in we will have to see where they’re at and maybe they’ll get a couple of days off.
Q: How big a boost is that for Jeff? Not a lot of guys get their first call at 29.
Schmid: I think it’s a big boost for him. I think when he last played for New York and the whole situation with the suspension and his contract, he was an angry player. He felt that New York hadn’t treated him fairly and the league hadn’t treated him fairly. We bore the brunt of that, a little bit. Eventually, as he realized that we weren’t so bad, he went from an angry soccer player, which is good if it motivates you, to a guy who realized he was in a pretty good place and a good place to grow and improve as a player. Getting selected for the National Team will hopefully substantiate in his mind that it was the right move to come to Seattle and he’s in the right place and hopefully he’ll be here for a while longer.
Q: How long will it take to adjust to not having Kasey Keller in the back?
Schmid: It’s going to be different. It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be weird for Kasey, I think, too, when he opens up the paper and sees that the guys are practicing and he’s not there. Certainly he’s been a backbone of the team and a mainstay of the team, so it’s going to be different. That’s why we wanted to bring in a veteran goalkeeper because we felt he could deal with that shadow a little bit better. If it was one of the young kids, Meredith or Ford, that was stepping into it, that’s a pretty big shadow to deal with. Some guys don’t always survive under those comparisons. Bringing in a veteran guy will make that easier. It’ll be different without Kasey. He always has a very calming effect on things. It takes a lot to rattle him. When the young guys get a little anxious it’s nice to have him there to remind them to relax. From that standpoint, we’re definitely going to miss him.
Q: What has you most excited for the 2012 season?
Schmid: For me it’s always about continuing to improve and continuing to get better. We want to be better this year in our possession. We want to be better in our immediate pressure. We want to get better results at key moments and that relates to the playoffs as much as anything. I think we have to be realistic. The Supporters’ Shield is going to be tough for a Western Conference team to win because of the unbalanced schedule and the West will be playing the West more often. The strength of schedule will favor the East to a certain extent. The Cascadia Cup, we were very proud to win last year and it is an important trophy, but it’s made much harder by the MLS schedulers by having us play four of the six games away. It becomes much easier for Portland and they should be the favorites in that because they play four of the six games at home. And it should be much easier for us in 2013 when we get four home games. For Vancouver it stays the same and they never get the advantage of playing more games at home. As a team, the goals remain the same though. We want to win every competition we’re in. Probably the most exciting thing at the outset is the quarterfinals of the Champions League. It becomes a huge statement for us to advance beyond the quarterfinals. We know that if we advance beyond the quarterfinals we will meet either Toronto or the Galaxy, which we feel are solvable opponents. We think we’re in a situation where we can have a good series against Santos Laguna and move on, we’ll have a good chance of making it to the finals. And once you make it to the finals, who knows? To have an opportunity this year to qualify for the World Club Championship is something that is very unique and very special.