TUCSON, Ariz. – After 13 days in the Arizona desert, the Sounders FC returns to Seattle on Sunday and they do so with the Desert Diamond Cup in tow. That’s far from the only thing the club picked up along the way though.
In their final two matches of the Desert Diamond Cup, the Sounders opted for a mostly reserve lineup while using the expected starters in a Friday night friendly against Veracruz from the Mexican second division.
Facing off against strong opposition in the New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake, the younger lineup navigated their way to two shutout victories and finished the week hoisting the Desert Diamond Cup high overhead.
In those matches, Alex Caskey scored twice, including the game-winner in the championship match.
“Every competition we’re in we’re trying to win. We just want to have a winning mentality throughout the season,” said Caskey, the second-year midfielder. “I think we showed in this game we have a lot of depth going on, and that could be important considering the length of the season.”
Added Lamar Neagle, who shined on the wing opposite of Caskey in those two matches, “It’ll be a good confidence booster not to be intimidated or anything like that and to focus on playing our game, not who we’re playing.”
While in Tucson, the Sounders made two major player acquisitions, trading for Shalrie Joseph and signing Djimi Traore, bolstering the strength in the middle of the field for the club. In both, Seattle adds a player with plenty of experience that have played key roles on championship-caliber teams.
Joseph played 10 seasons with the New England Revolution, reaching the MLS Cup final in three consecutive years from 2005-2007, falling to the LA Galaxy and twice to the Houston Dynamo. He is also a four-time MLS Best XI selection and is among the top defensive midfielders in the league’s history.
Traore, meanwhile, is a UEFA Champions League winner, helping pull Liverpool back from a 3-0 halftime deficit against AC Milan to tie the match and win on penalties in 2005. He spent 13 years in the top divisions in England and France and now joins a center back group that includes a trio of fifth-year Sounders in Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Patrick Ianni and Zach Scott, as well as first-round MLS SuperDraft selection Eriq Zavaleta.
Ministers of defense
In 450 minutes over five matches while in Tucson, the Sounders allowed just one goal while using a mixture of players. That included a backline of three rookies and Marc Burch in front of Marcus Hahnemann in the final two matches of the Desert Diamond Cup.
“We had a great tournament,” Hahnemann said. “The guys worked their butts off. It was a lot of young guys and we showed really good organization. Guys are trying to make the team and they’re playing their hearts out.”
That play instills self-confidence for the youngsters, but also ensures the coaching staff that they can play in MLS when they’re called upon.
Confidence at a peak
With just a few days before they kick off the 2013 MLS season against the Montreal Impact on Saturday at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders FC’s confidence is pretty high. After dropping their first preseason match 1-0 to Portland during their first leg of training camp, the Sounders have roared to a 4-1-1 overall record. With both starters and reserves playing full 90-minute matches, anyone on the team could draw the call from Schmid when the Sounders face an important start to the season when they face Tigres on March 6 and 12 in their CCL series, then host the Portland Timbers in a grudge match on March 16.
“The team feels good about themselves, but preseason doesn’t mean anything—they know that. What was really good was we were able to finish this week. We’re a week out and we were able to get almost all of our players 90 minutes and that’s what we feel really good about,” Schmid said. “We know we’ve got to play some guys—we’ve got some guys out with red cards in the first game—but I think all the guys got a chance to show what they can do. I think we’re set.”
While the results aren’t as important as the cohesion and play on the field, going unbeaten in the last five matches certainly instills a belief that the system in place is working and encourages the players to be confident and engaged in the team unit.
“It’s got to be good. Look at the way we’ve been playing,” said Hahnemann. “We’ve always been a pretty solid defensive team. Last year we had a goals against average that was pretty darn good. You look at this year and we’re right on form again. … We just keep getting better.”