After five weeks of preseason training, the Sounders FC is back at their home training ground at Starfire and their focus has now shifted dramatically.
Back on January 21 when they held the first training session of the new season, it was the first day back at school. Players, coaches and staff were all smiles as they got back together and reacquainted themselves with the people they would likely spend the next 10 months with and the training routine that would dictate their lives over that time.
On Tuesday, when they got back to Starfire after spending time training in Casa Grande and Tucson, Ariz., it was with a steely gaze toward their one common goal – MLS Cup.
“They’ve immersed themselves in the team and I think that’s really important in our locker room, but it also shows on the field,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “It’s not like guys have to be best friends, but there has to be a feeling about each other that I’m willing to fight for you because I know that you’re willing to fight and battle for me. And I think that feeling’s there.”
That battle starts on Saturday when the Sounders host the Montreal Impact in their first of 34 matches on the MLS calendar.
It will mark the fifth straight season that the Sounders have opened the season at home, where they have set new league attendance marks each season, averaging 43,144 per game at CenturyLink Field last year. That atmosphere drives the team to succeed, but most of their motivation comes internally as pressure mounts outside the organization to deliver more on the field.
“The pressure comes from inside. We know last year how close we were and that’s driven us,” said midfielder Steve Zakuani, who will be poised to start on opening night for the first time since 2011. “To win the MLS championship is why we’re training. We’re not here just to have fun. We want to win the whole championship.”
Added Brad Evans, who along with Zakuani is one of six players remaining from the opening night roster of the inaugural season of 2009, “I think even from Day One in 2009 we’ve had those expectations and we’ve either exceeded those or fallen short of that one goal, which is MLS Cup. Along the way we’ve checked off some accomplishments, but I think everybody knows from the top down that it’s not good enough.”
Some of those accomplishments include being one of only three teams in MLS who have made the postseason in each season since 2009 while posting the second-best record in the league in that time and winning three straight US Open Cup titles and reaching a final in the fourth.
Last year, they reached the Western Conference championship for the first time in club history after three exits in the conference semifinal round. That progress has made the club even hungrier, collectively and on an individual level, for that next level of success.
“It feels like the team has come together and put a pretty big bullseye on MLS Cup,” said owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer. “Getting that next bite last year I think has just redoubled our emphasis and efforts toward that goal.”
While the Sounders are focused on the long-term goal of winning that elusive title, they also know that MLS Cup isn’t won in March, but rather in the latter part of the season. So while there is an urgency to start the season strong, it is tempered by the knowledge that the season is long and arduous and the team’s level of play late in the year is much more important than their play in March.
Such is the dichotomy. They are preparing to start the season strong in order to garner as many points in the Supporters’ Shield race as they can. They are also prepping for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, where they will meet Tigres UANL from Monterrey, Mexico, in a two-legged series starting March 6 in Mexico and concluding March 12 at CenturyLink Field.
That light at the end of the preseason tunnel has been another driving force behind the team.
“It’s good to have that first competitive match coming up. I think guys are hungry,” Evans said. “It’s been a long preseason and I think we’re ready.”