Sounders FC underwent some major changes before the 2013 season, bringing in four new starters and more top-end depth to a squad that reached the Western Conference Championship in 2012.
The message was clear. If they weren’t going to succeed in their fifth season, it wouldn’t be because they rested on their laurels and were complacent after a successful run the previous year.
Five key components to that mini-makeover came to the Sounders in very different ways, but have all found ways to contribute greatly to their recent success that has seen them go 4-0-2 in their last six matches and a perfect 3-0-0 in their last three.
Sounders FC sporting director Chris Henderson was on the inside of each of those five transactions and talked this week about how the team landed DeAndre Yedlin, Djimi Traore, Lamar Neagle, Shalrie Joseph and Obafemi Martins.
Sounders FC was the last MLS club to sign a Homegrown Player. After establishing their youth development program under the watchful eye of Darren Sawatzky, they sent players to quality college programs all around the country. Among them was Yedlin, an O’Dea High School product who was a key piece to a star-studded inaugural class of Sounders FC Academy players.
The rightback would go to Akron to play for Caleb Porter and the stellar program he had developed there, developing over two seasons all while holding the attention of the Sounders FC technical staff.
As the 2013 season approached, dominos began falling that led to Yedlin becoming the club’s first ever Homegrown Player signing, but it was far from a knee-jerk reaction to a pair of good college seasons or a need for publicity that led to the Sounders signing the 19-year-old defender.
“To be fair, we’ve been really patient with our Homegrown signings and some of that was just based on what other teams in the league had done and Homegrown signings didn’t work out,” Henderson said. “He was playing well, he was in good form and we felt like the time was right for him. We felt like he would have been pretty high if he was in the draft this year. We thought it was going to take some time, but he’s come on faster than we thought.”
Yedlin started off the season in training camp as a backup to Swedish veteran Adam Johansson, but during training camp and into the opening weeks of the season, Johansson expressed interest in returning to Sweden while Yedlin narrowed the gap between himself and the starting role. Eventually, Johansson went back to Sweden and Yedlin moved seamlessly into the starting lineup.
Buoyed by a goal to start a comeback charge against Tigres in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, the youngster quickly gained confidence and is now among the league’s top rookies.
“He’s been great and he’s getting better each game. He has a good attitude and he’s willing to learn and do the extra work. Even his teammates have helped him along at different times,” Henderson said.
For Yedlin, it was the perfect blend of talent meeting opportunity, as the Sounders FC’s need for a rightback blended perfectly with Yedlin’s progress. Others within the youth development program have shown a readiness to compete at the MLS level, but have been hindered by depth on the Sounders roster that would limit their chances at playing time.
“We have very talented players at different positions where we are much deeper. For DeAndre it worked out perfect as a rightback. The situation has worked out great for him,” Henderson said. “I think being in the culture of the Sounders for a few years is a big reason for his success. It’s a great story for our Academy and future Homegrowns.”
After the departure of Jeff Parke during the off-season, Sounders FC would need a proven defensive talent to fill the vacancy at centerback. While in Arizona for preseason training camp, the answer to that conundrum arrived ready to contribute right away.
It was something of an unexpected arrival, but one that quickly paid dividends. Just days earlier, Patrick Ianni suffered a fractured foot, limiting Schmid’s options even further. From the moment Traore arrived, there was a sense that he was adding something to the roster that the Sounders didn’t even know that they were missing, going beyond filling in for the on-field contributions of Parke.
“His personality has been amazing. He’s really been a dream player off the field,” Henderson said. “Then on the field, he’s composed. He’s been in pressure games before and he knows how to react.”
Traore spent 13 seasons playing in France in England for clubs like Marseille and Liverpool, winning a UEFA Champions League title with Liverpool in 2005. All told, he played 35 matches in European tournaments to go with his 201 league matches.
That level of experience can go one of two ways when players arrive in MLS. To say that Traore’s has been a positive addition for the Sounders would be an understatement and the Sounders knew pretty quickly that he would have a positive impact on the club.
“You never know how a guy is going to pan out. After we talked to him on the phone, we were even more impressed. And then he came in and fit right into the locker room,” Henderson said, noting that Traore came to preseason with the Sounders even without a contract signed. “To me, that’s a huge sign of a guy who wants to come here and make an impact.”
Like Yedlin, Traore scored to help the comeback win over Tigres, rocketing a long-range volley that quickly found itself into club legend. He has started nine of 10 regular season matches for the Sounders too, and the 33-year-old defender has been a consistent stopper in the back, helping Seattle to shutouts in four of their last six matches.
No matter how many times he has to leave his hometown, there is no keeping Neagle from coming back.
After a stellar high school career at Thomas Jefferson High School in Federal Way, he played collegiately at UNLV. However, he went undrafted after finishing his career with 27 goals in 73 matches for the Runnin’ Rebels and the Sounders brought him back home. He didn’t play a minute of competitive action in 2009, but got a taste of the professional game.
In 2010, he earned USL2 MVP honors while leading the league in goals and powering the Charleston Battery to the league title. From there, he went to Mariehamn in Finland, but returned to the Sounders for training camp and again made the roster.
In that season, his first full-season on an MLS roster, he became a mainstay for Schmid’s Sounders and scored the club’s second-ever hat-trick in a 6-2 win over the Columbus Crew, finishing the season with five goals in 23 appearances.
However, an opportunity arose to land US National Team striker Eddie Johnson and Neagle and Mike Fucito were the casualties of the trade to acquire him. So, again, he left his home.
He played 23 matches for the Montreal Impact in 2012, but couldn’t catch the same rhythm he did in Seattle and when Montreal underwent a coaching change in the off-season, he became available for a return to the Sounders and Henderson jumped at the chance.
“From the day we lost him, we were trying to get him back again. We loved having him here and he was improving every day he was with us,” he said.
The trade that saw the Sounders send an international roster slot to Montreal for the 26-year-old has proven to be a solid addition for Seattle. While dealing with injuries, suspensions and international absences early in the season, Neagle has stepped into a starting role and has proven more than capable of playing alongside Johnson. He scored twice in a 4-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes and added a goal and an assist last week against FC Dallas.
“We’re so happy for him. He’s a homegrown kid who is creating chances every game and playing with great confidence,” Henderson said. “He’s added a lot to his game and he can help us keep possession in important moments.”
Neagle has 10 career MLS goals in 52 appearance, scoring eight of them with the Sounders FC.
While trading for Neagle meant bringing a local product back to a place where he is comfortable and has proven that he can contribute, the trade to bring in Joseph was a much greater risk.
The Grenadian midfielder is an eight-time MLS All-Star and four-time MLS Best XI selection. In his prime, he was among the best players in the league. However, he struggled in 2012 while playing with the New England Revolution and Chivas USA.
Would the Sounders get the Best XI player who tormented them in select matches against the Revolution, a team he helped reach three straight MLS Cup finals from 2005-2008? Or the aging veteran that dipped in form in his final season with his longstanding club and was traded in the process?
The early returns have been good as Joseph has blended with 2012 MLS Best XI selection Osvaldo Alonso, adding a new dynamic to the midfield while offering different attributes than the defensively stubborn Alonso.
“His passing, his range of passing, the way he delivers a ball to a player, the way he competes, his leadership … I think he’s a guy who can really lead our team,” Henderson said. “In the locker room he fit in immediately. He’s a good pro. You can see that.”
He’s also a guy who has been right on the brink of the ultimate in success in MLS, but he has yet to win the MLS Cup. Arguably the best player in the league over a stretch from 2005-2009 when he made MLS Best XI in four out of five seasons, Joseph’s career would hardly seem complete without lifting the Phillip Anschutz trophy.
“He’s a guy who’s driven,” Henderson said. “You want to get players who are driven to win and before he’s done, he wants to leave with a championship.”
Joseph has played in three league matches and is easing back into the lineup after a hamstring strain and could find himself filling in for Alonso after he suffered a groin injury last Saturday.
Last and certainly not least is Martins. The Sounders FC’s latest Designated Player signing may have been the biggest risk of them all for Seattle.
Just 28 years old, Martins has seen it all on the European circuit, playing in Italy, England, Germany, Russia and Spain while scoring 106 goals in 11 seasons. With all of those successes and accolades can often come baggage. That’s something the Sounders had to be wary of when they sought Martins.
Acquiring him was a complicated matter, and it was a difficult negotiation with his previous club, Levante in Spain, before they finally agreed to accept a buyout of his contract. In the process, the Sounders made sure to do their due diligence to ensure that the efforts made to bring Martins to Seattle would be worth it.
Schmid and Henderson both watched him in training and in matches in Spain. They talked with him about playing on turf, something he had already done with Rubin Kazan in Russia. Ultimately, his desire to come play in MLS was the most tell-tale sign.
“Obafemi had his mind set on coming. We know he’s a winner and we know he can produce. I think that mentality of helping this club win the MLS Cup is the ultimate goal for our club and he’s going to be a big piece to that if we can get there,” Henderson said.
Since arriving, he has not disappointed in the five matches he has played. Though he has dealt with a knee injury, he has still managed goals in each of his last three appearances, making him the second-fastest Sounder to three goals in Rave Green.
Along with the backflips that come with his signature goal celebration, Martins has also become a leader among the team’s forwards.
“The thing I liked about Oba is that he just fits in. He’s a guy who is for the team. He’s a leader, but he’s not a guy that gives a rah rah speech,” Henderson said. “He’s a pure finisher. He has so much talent and so much skill that sometimes when you watch him he looks like a kid in the park. He’s willing to try things, but he’s also smart and willing to work for the team. Those are the types of players you want to invest in.”
Time will tell just how well these major roster changes turn out for the Sounders, but through 10 matches in the 2013 season, things have certainly looked promising.