For some, the off-season is a good time for Major League Soccer players to take a vacation or return to their hometowns.
However, Sounders FC forward Sammy Ochoa wanted to be anywhere but southern California or Mexico. He spent enough idle time there in the months between when his contract expired with Estudiantes Tecos in Mexico and when he signed with the Sounders FC in August.
“I didn’t want to go home,” he said. “I had too much time off before I got here, so I didn’t need the rest.”
The former US U-20 and U-23 forward played five seasons with Estudiantes Tecos, but only saw first-team action in 24 matches in that time and was ready for a new beginning when his contract expired. However, it was two months between his trial in Seattle and when he finally signed with the Sounders FC.
Because of the match fitness lost during that time, it was a month before he would see action in an MLS match for Seattle.
In that time, he grew very familiar with fitness coach Dave Tenney, who worked him into good enough condition to allow the 25-year-old forward to play 100 minutes while appearing in four of Seattle’s final five matches of the MLS season. Perhaps more importantly, he was able to maintain his physical edge as a target forward even while he was slimming down.
The truest testament to his transformation came in the form of two goals in Seattle’s final two matches, both victories.
“It was good on a personal level. Dave did a good job to get me back in shape,” Ochoa said. “I still think I can get in better shape and I think it’s going to help me a lot to get a preseason in and not have those three months off. Hopefully there’s more to come.”
Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid has taken notice of the stronger, fitter version of the player he brought in to the club last season, but also echoed the sentiment that he has more to offer.
“Sammy is fitter than he was last year when he came to us. He’s dropped some weight, which was important for him,” Schmid said. “I still think he’s a good player that can hold the ball up. He’s a good target that way, he’s mobile, he’s pretty good in front of the goal. I’m pleased he’s with us. He’s done ok, but he’s still going to get better.”
In that two months since the team’s final match of the 2011 season, Ochoa became a weekly fixture at the club’s training grounds at Starfire, where he continued his fitness work as he prepared for the 2012 season, which starts against a club he is all too familiar with in Santos Laguna. Having spent five seasons playing in Mexico, he has more experience against Santos than any other player on the Sounders.
It will be his second meeting with a Mexican club since he joined the Sounders after he started in Seattle’s final group stage match in CONCACAF Champions League, a 2-1 loss to Monterrey in October.
“I didn’t expect this to happen – to play a Mexican team the first game back. It’s going to be fun,” he smiled. “I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully we can get things done in preseason and work from there.”
A solid grasp isn’t the only reason he is confident that he can make an impact in the early-going for the Sounders in 2012. He’s also growing more familiar with his teammates – and them with him.
Just a few days into their preseason, he is already growing excited at the prospect of playing alongside the likes of Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales, among others.
“Fredy and Mauro are very good passers. All you have to do is make a movement and they’ll find you. Then you have to do your job and put it away,” he said. “Getting a whole preseason together is going to help us out a lot.”
Case in point, Ochoa’s diving header against Chivas USA in the regular season finale when Montero sent a ball to the far post where only Ochoa could get to it and he deposited it into the net for his second goal in as many games.
Moments like that motivated Ochoa in the off-season and left he and the club eager for the start of a new season. The Sounders will kick off the 2012 campaign against Santos Laguna in the quarterfinals of the Champions League at CenturyLink Field March 7, with the return leg in the aggregate-goal series March 14 in Mexico. Their MLS opener is March 17 at home against Toronto FC.