It was all smiles at Starfire on Saturday morning as Sounders FC returned to training to the cheers of the over 100 supporters that lined the endline at the team’s main training field for the first session of the 2014 season.
They flew their flags and sang their songs while the players started to warm up for the morning session as a chilly fog settled over the field. With players bundled up in layers, the new season was under way.
“Starting off is always good and everybody is excited about being back. There are a lot of new faces, so it’s a team that we’ve made changes to in the offseason and we’re not done yet in terms of all of those changes. As a result of that, there’s a good spirit,” Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. “I think the guys are excited about the opportunity to play in Seattle. As we continue to move forward, I think that we’re going to develop a team that is going to be very good and very cohesive.”
Throughout training, players smiled at the notion of fans offering their support at a training session and it elevated the level on the field, even while players worked to get their legs back after the offseason.
Returning players like Osvaldo Alonso and Marcus Hahnemann led a group of newcomers that included players from around MLS and rookies from Seattle’s 2014 MLS SuperDraft class. All told, 14 returning players were at training on Saturday, with six new players from around MLS, three more rookies and 10 non-roster invitees.
That made for a good mix within the group for Schmid as the team took the first step to build toward the season opener on March 8.
“You want to make sure you get your fitness in these first couple of days, but also it’s an opportunity to get some training sessions in with new players and get a feel for them and see what their trends and tendencies are like,” said Kenny Cooper, a veteran of 188 MLS matches who trained with Seattle for the first time on Saturday. “Already in the first session, you feel like you have a better understanding coming out of it than you did going into it. That’s a good feeling to have.”
Sounders FC finished the 2013 season fourth in the Western Conference at 15-12-7, falling to the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference semifinals. The club reached the postseason for the fifth consecutive year – one of just three teams in the league to accomplish that along with Real Salt Lake, who has six straight playoff berths, and the LA Galaxy.
Players came into camp fit and ready to play as the club will look to maintain that streak in 2014, with eyes set on the MLS Cup.
“It’s always exciting getting back into it,” said veteran defender Zach Scott, who is opening his 13th season in Seattle. “I think we’re all sick of the mindless running and lifting weights that happen during the offseason. Everyone’s happy to kick a ball around and see some new faces and get acclimated to playing together.”
Players aren’t only getting acclimated to each other, but also the coaching style of Schmid.
In the first training session, the team worked on possession drills, fitness drills and some small-sided games, and while they all may be done similarly in training camps around the league, it always takes time to adjust to a new environment.
“We just wanted them to play a little bit so we could establish where they are at fitness wise and get all the excitement out of their system, as well,” Schmid said. “For some guys, the stuff is new and every coach has a certain way that he trains and I know that I have a certain way. So it may take them a training or two to understand the objective of the different exercises, but it will come.”
This preseason will see Sounders FC make trips to Tucson, Arizona, and Charleston, South Carolina, as the team prepares in advance of the regular season opening match on March 8 at CenturyLink Field against defending MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City.
Three key players for the 2014 season were absent from training. Forward Clint Dempsey is on loan to Fulham in the English Premier League and will rejoin the team in March, while DeAndre Yedlin and Brad Evans are with the U.S. National Team in January camp and are set to meet the team in Arizona after a friendly with South Korea on February 1.
In addition, Shalrie Joseph was not at training and Schmid said the team does not have the veteran midfielder in their plans for the 2014 season. Leo Gonzalez also worked on the side after undergoing offseason groin surgery.
The team held a second session on Saturday afternoon and will take Sunday off before fitness testing on Monday and Tuesday.