SoundersFC.com: Ok first of all Ross, give me your general feelings on the offseason so far and how the Sounders have progressed.
Ross Fletcher: It's been a quieter offseason so far and I think the reason for that is the progress the Sounders made in 2012 on the overall strength of the squad. There have been fewer player movements and that is probably because there hasn't been a need for big changes - save of course for the salary cap constraints and Fredy Montero and Jeff Parke wanting to move on. Reaching the Western Conference Championship was definite progress but you can sense the hunger within the organization to go one better in 2013 - and with Steve Zakuani back to full health, Mario Martinez and Christian Tiffert able to have their first preseasons with the Sounders and the possibility of bringing in another fresh face then you can see the reasons for optimism.
SFC.com: Now with so much player movement in and around the club (LA, RSL, New York, etc.) do you think it's wise for management to stay patient? Even with these 'new' players like a healthy Zakuani and Tiffert with a preseason under his belt.
Fletcher: Patience is critical when it comes to transfer windows and close seasons. A club that follows the Pied Piper will always lose out in the long run. Each team has unique needs. In Seattle's case, if they are to bring in another player, they have to be able to improve the squad. The best players will be in demand, and those players tend to take their time in deciding which club to sign for - it's the nature of the beast as they can play teams off against each other for the best deal. It can be frustrating for supporters but there's so much that goes on behind the scenes that can't be divulged - that's business - so patience is needed all sides.
SFC.com: Speaking of patience...the deal to loan out Fredy Montero took some time to get finalized. You spent a year watching him play - how big of a loss is it for the club and is Eddie Johnson the guy step up or do you think additional help will be brought in to help score the goals up front?
Fletcher: There are so many fascinating angles on this one. Fredy Montero did a terrific job as the 'face of the franchise' in his four years in the PNW. Naturally he will be a loss - it's not easy to replace one of the league's leading scorers, allied to his ability to create assists. I'll never forget his 35-yard thunderbolt against LA back in May and the ease with which he rose off the bench at FC Dallas to score twice to guide the side to a win. But his inability to score in the playoffs was no doubt a frustration.
Some might see it as a bold move to allow Fredy the chance to go home to Colombia but sometimes you have to make big decisions to reap the ultimate rewards. Just look at Eddie Johnson - it was something of a gamble to bring him in last season but he was a fantastic signing and it'll be terrific to see him back for a second season. His hunger and quality of play is right up there with the best strikers in MLS. I'm not privy to the discussions about whether Montero will be directly replaced but what intrigues me is the role a fit-again Steve Zakuani will play. He scored 10 goals in his last full season in 2010 and has long talked about how he enjoys playing a more central role. He could be an option for Sigi Schmid, as could Mario Martinez or Mauro Rosales. Regardless of whoever assumes the Montero role, more goals from midfield would be very welcome.
SFC.com: Would you say that the midfield is the team's biggest strength then?
Fletcher: I think so. There's so much quality and versatility there. Mauro Rosales was one of the league's top assist makers. You saw how effectively Brad Evans played across the middle of the park last season. Mario Martinez offered teasing flashes of what he's capable of, particularly in the Champions League. Did I mention that Zakuani's fit again?! Christian Tiffert will be keen to live up to his designated player status. Then you have the young guns Rose and Caskey who were real finds and there's Carrasco who adds steel. And of course Ozzie Alonso, who's simply the best defensive midfielder in MLS.
SFC.com: With all that in mind, what do the Sounders need to do to improve on their 2012 season?
Fletcher: The Western Conference Championship series encapsulates it for me. It really is about the fine details and more specifically demonstrating that playoff savvy. It was there in an epic series against Real Salt Lake. The Sounders were then so close to getting past LA but gave themselves too much to do after losing the first leg three nil. Instead of accepting a smaller defeat, shutting up shop and bringing LA back to Seattle for the second match, the side chased the game and subsequently left holes and conceded again, making the task so tough. They'll be stronger for that experience though. They have learned the hard way about how to manage those situations. It should provide plenty of motivation as the team strives for its first MLS Cup.