Season Five has come to a conclusion for Sounders FC and already there is an eye toward 2014 and the club’s sixth season in Major League Soccer.
This week, Sporting Director Chris Henderson sat down with SoundersFC.com and discussed the 2013 season and the plans for the future of the club. In Part One of a two-part series, Henderson talks about the lasting impressions of the 2013 season.
Q: How do you assess the season?
Henderson: In the end, I think disappointing. We have really high goals here and we felt really good about our roster. We all felt – in management, coaches and players – that we fell a little short in the playoffs and we were in a position where the Supporters’ Shield was right there and we didn’t finish the job. We’re all at fault in the end. We did have some positives in there, too. We eliminated a Mexican team – the first team in MLS to knock a Mexican team out of CCL. That was a huge start to our season. Twenty-seven points from July 20 through the September 29 tied the most in MLS. We made the playoffs again in the fifth straight year as a new franchise, which is something we are really proud of. A goal at the start of the season was making the playoffs. The 10-2-5 record at home, 35 points, tied our club record and we’re happy about that. We’ve had a lot of things to deal with this year with the national team call-ups, the lineup changes, injuries … Shalrie Joseph was a guy, as an example, that we had high hopes for and he was injured quite a bit of the time. I’ve said it before that the only team that’s happy at the end of the season is the champion. Everyone else feels that they fell a little short. The longer you go in the playoffs the little more satisfied you are. We were happy to get into the playoffs, but disappointed with the Supporters’ Shield and disappointed with our playoff run.
Check out Part II of the interview here
Q: How do you weigh the Champions League success against the poor start to the season? On the surface, the start was disappointing, but does the Champions League win erase some of that disappointment?
Henderson: Our rosters and the way things are set up in MLS, we might not have enough in our roster to be able to be successful in the two simultaneously. We went into preseason with a split-focus. In the quarterfinal of the Champions League – that was a point that we worked the whole previous year to get to that point. Focus started going a little heavy toward that. We wanted to be the first team to represent MLS in the FIFA Club World Cup, so we put a lot of energy into that, we advanced in that and then we lose and it’s kind of a blow to the team. We pushed through preseason at a higher rate than we normally would and I think that affected team injuries through the year. It had a big impact on us. I think the Sounders have one of the best sports science coaching staffs and the technology and things that we use to help our team and even having all of that it was still a lot for us to handle between the two. We are proud of getting as far as we did in Champions League. We really want to win that. The Mexican teams probably have three or four times the salary budget that we have. So with the amount of money we spend on our salaries, the teams in our league are pretty darn good.
Q: Looking through the team, position-by-position, how do you look at the goalkeeper position?
Henderson: For goalkeepers, this year was a difficult year. Michael and Marcus are two fantastic goalkeepers. Sometimes I feel competition, when players are that close, can work great when they’re pushing each other. I saw it a lot with Keller and Freidel. You look at top goalkeepers and they’re pushing each other and driving each other. Sometimes it works where the pressure affects both of them. I don’t know how it really played out this year, but I think there was some change in who the starter was and that affects the confidence of the players. I think they both did well, but I’ll say it was probably not the best year from both of them. It was decent. And I think that goes into the consistency as well with the team and the defense of the team and the amount of chances teams were getting against our goalkeeper. There were some games where we took heavy goals and that goes on the whole team. I think the mentality and the confidence is something that we take a heavy look at. We look heavily at technical and tactical aspects, but I bet we take a 10-percent look at the psychological aspects. That’s what we’re trying to do to help. You always see it when players move through their career, veteran players react different to different situations. The consistency is there and so is the belief in what they do well. Sometimes you see it where a player has a bad pass at the start of the game or they miss a save and sometimes they can’t turn themselves around. That’s something I think we can help, with the players and help keep them confident.
Q: How about the defenders? There are obvious highs with DeAndre Yedlin and Leo Gonzalez, but again, there were some spots where it seems like you could have been better.
Henderson: When you look at DeAndre – a player with the youth national team and he had done a great job to get there, an All-Star this year and he was consistent pretty much all year. He was really a great surprise for us. We really felt we had a good, young player, but he stepped in and started and he was consistent. He was a dangerous coming up the flank. Leo was very consistent and at times was one of the best 1-v-1 defenders in the league. He was so tough to get by. When you talk about goalkeepers, I think the center back situation is very similar. In JK, Ianni, Traore and Zach, you have players who are very close and any game you could throw a pair of them in and they could do fantastic and then sometimes the mix doesn’t work right or there are some injuries or lack of confidence and those things can affect the back four. That’s part of it, where we need to be more consistent. We just need to get guys confident and keep working on their sharpness. I think speed is something that we need to keep focusing on and working on because strikers now are faster than ever and you have to match that.
Q: DeAndre had a remarkable year. Looking back a year ago, with expectations being what they were with the team and what you had at the right back spot, could you imagine that he would lead your team in starts?
Henderson: I’ve known DeAndre and his family for a long time – he played for my brother, Sean, when he was 11 years old. He’s a fantastic kid with a great work ethic. He’s a competitor. If he was in the draft, I thought he would be in the top three or four and he stepped up and showed that. I think back to when I was 18 and playing for the Seattle Storm and going into that playing with men and in the locker room with guys with kids and it’s a big change to be in that new environment. He handled it great. He was humble, he worked hard every day. He stayed healthy, which is good for a young kid playing against big, strong guys. He was very durable. I think with a lot of college guys, you start to see a dip come August. There may have been a play or two of focus here and there, but he wasn’t making the same mistakes. He learned from them. I think next year is a big challenge for him because year two is always a really difficult year because you don’t have the high and adrenaline of the first year. I think if he can keep his head on and keep focused, he’s going to have a good year.
Q: How did you view the midfield?
Henderson: We had Dempsey coming in midseason, we can talk about him. Evans had a fantastic year. He’s so versatile. He can play anywhere and we’re happy to get him signed again – and making the national team. Alonso had another MVP season. I think Ozzie is so good – his heart for the game and playing for the club. Moffat, I think, is a good addition as a guy who is going to give everything and fight and tackle and work. And then Mauro Rosales had eight assists again. He consistently produces with his crosses and reading of the game. He kind of had his ins and outs as well this year. I think adding Clint to the mix is amazing for us. He’s a guy you can give the ball to when you’re under pressure and he’s going to keep it and dictate the rhythm.
Q: For what Brad has done for the team over five years and now he’s adding the national team to that as well, how has he handled this year?
Henderson: Brad, more and more every year, is becoming a leader of this team. He’s one of the top three or four guys who help keep this group together and help us going in the right direction. He’s got championship experience. In a lot of ways I see in Brad what I saw in Kyle Beckerman when I played with him. Kyle’s had a fantastic career and I think Brad has a lot of those same qualities. His passing is good. Each year he’s improving. He can play multiple positions, he sees the game well, he’s a thinker on the field, but he also has the athletic ability to get up and down. I think he makes his teammates better. He kind of adjusts and adapts to the players around him and I think that’s why he’s been able to make the jump to the national team. There are a lot of players that can’t make the jump from MLS to the national team – it’s just a different game. But I think because Brad’s a thinker, he’s been able to make that jump. It says so much for him to be able to jump into a new spot and get it quickly. That’s going to help Brad to have a really long career.
Q: What are your thoughts on the forwards?
Henderson: Clint can go into that group as well because he can play either one. Oba, Neagle, EJ … the three of them with 20 points each … I think there’s something to be said for that. Eddie Johnson won the Golden Boot for us and Oba had five game-winning goals. They are players that are always exciting for the fans. Lamar had a breakout year. He had a breakout year before he left for Montreal and another breakout year this year and I think he’s a guy that we look to keep seeing improvement from. He has a great work ethic and an open mind to the coaches, so we’re very happy with him. Eddie, getting back into the national team is big. He scored some big goals for us and he’s a threat in the box. Zavaleta and Estrada are guys that contributed a little bit for us too, but they are guys to look for in the future.
Q: What did you see from Neagle this year?
Henderson: Lamar has been fantastic. The work that he puts in and the amount of running that he does is probably close to Ozzie and Evans in games. He’s right up there. He’ll do anything when he’s up front to try and score a goal or help our team win. His first touch is improving and I think that’s something that we really wanted to focus on this year. So many balls were coming up front over the top or to him with pace with a man on his back and sometimes up front it’s not easy and Lamar is improving. He’s a guy that’s going to continue to score goals and threaten teams and he’s going to be really successful for this team. He has a drive to succeed and he knows that when his chance comes, he’s going to seize the opportunity and he’s done that this year. One of the things he’s picked up from Oba was the joy of the game. When Oba plays he has fun playing and you can see it when he scores. I think Lamar saw a little bit of that – you get back to why you want to play and it’s that joy of playing and competing.
Q: Thinking about Clint Dempsey – with the late addition, the international absences and the injuries, how do you look at his year and what he was able to do for the team?
Henderson: Clint is a competitor. I think he pushed himself through some things because he wanted to come in and play through some things. He was excited to be here and be part of what we were doing. He didn’t have a preseason, really, so I think that affected him. But if you look at just the first few games, some of the shots he took that he just missed … if you look at those plays, they were world class plays that you would see in a higher league and he just missed. There were times that he hit balls that he was trying to bury so far in the corner that sometimes they were tailing wide, but he has that quality. I think having a full preseason for him, I know he’ll be preparing for the World Cup and that’s another motivation for him, but hopefully we see the benefits of that as well. He’s a great leader and the players were excited to have him come and join the team. When we had all of our starters together in training and some of the plays and the rhythm of the game and training was amazing and there were some flashes of that in games, but we never had that rhythm of games in a row where we could see the group together. I think next year he’s going to help us with the possession, which is something we need to improve on. He wants to win and he’s got a hunger to win. He’s going to bring other players with him.
Q: Eriq Zavaleta and Dylan Remick didn’t make tremendous impacts on the field, but in watching the reserve games, you could see their progression as pros. Are they guys who could figure into this team pretty well in the coming years?
Henderson: If you look at reserve games and training sessions, they are definitely guys that we should continue to put time in developing. Both of them are smart kids and open-minded and coachable and they put in the work every single day. Remick at outside back has shown some great progress. He’s been really consistent and you don’t see those highs and lows that you see in a lot of young guys. We’re going to keep pushing him along and maybe put him in the fire a little bit more. Zavaleta as well. I think it helped when we loaned him to San Antonio. They were happy with his hold-up play. He’s able to hold guys off and dish balls at the right time. He puts in the work and he’s a threat in the box. Those are things that he can refine and improve on and those will just come with training and repetition. I think he also can learn from some of the players who are playing – with Eddie and Oba and Neagle and those different styles of players. He can see what he does well and what he can add to the team.