Sounders set to open season versus defending champion Sporting KC

Seattle Sounders FC vs. Sporting Kansas City
Saturday, March 8; 12 pm PT
CenturyLink Field; Seattle
TV/Radio: NBC Sports; KIRO Radio 97.3 FM; ESPN Deportes

The curtain rises on the 2014 season on Saturday when Sounders FC hosts Sporting Kansas City at CenturyLink Field.

A new-look Seattle side will take on the defending MLS Cup champions, who go virtually unchanged in its 10 field players, in a first-day exam that will be as challenging as any match the Sounders will face in the new season. The funny thing about the players that make up the sixth edition of Sounders FC is that they are embracing that challenge as an opportunity to show themselves, their fans and the MLS followers around the country that will be watching the nationally televised match on NBC Sports that this team can rise to the occasion.

“That’s the way to test yourselves right away is to go at the champs,” said Sounders FC forward Lamar Neagle. “That’s where we want to be at the end of the year, so it’s a great way to start.”

Head Coach Sigi Schmid has a confident team ready to take the field and, for him, the opening match will be a good indication of what Seattle needs to do and adjustments that may need to be made to compete with the top teams in MLS.

“They’re the defending champions and they deserve a lot of credit for winning the championship last year. But we feel that we can play with them,” Schmid said. “So it’s a good measuring stick for us right away at the beginning of the season. We find out pretty early.”

Led by the U.S. National Team contingent of Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, KC has a balanced team that last year had the second-best record in MLS at 17-10-7, was second in goal differential at +17 and had the league’s best defense, allowing just 30 goals in 34 regular season matches.

Zusi has emerged as a bright star in MLS over the past three seasons, highlighted by a five-goal, 15-assist season in 2012. He followed that up with six goals and eight assists last season while balancing his time with Kansas City and a standout run with the U.S. National Team, netting two goals and two assists in 12 matches. He is the offensive catalyst for Sporting KC and is particularly dangerous on set pieces.

“Graham Zusi is a guy who is always able to set people up. You have to keep track of him and keep him at bay and not give away any unnecessary free kicks,” Schmid said.

Besler and center back partner Aurelien Collin are the backbone to that defense, but it starts with a three-man midfield that clogs up the middle of the park and outside backs Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic that provide cover on the wing channels. Collin is widely considered among the league’s best defenders and rides the fine line of physicality that made him the most cautioned player in MLS with 13 yellow cards while rarely being costly to his team.

Collin, in fact, sets the tone for a physical Kansas City team that led the league by a wide margin in fouls committed last season, being whistled for 511 fouls in 2013 while the second-highest total was 465 from Chivas USA.

While Seattle is aware of those past trends, they can’t always be an indication of how things will unfold in a new season.

“They’re a good team. They won the league, so of course they’re good. This is a new season now,” Obafemi Martins said. “We’ll see how it goes on Saturday.”

In MLS regular season play, Seattle hasn’t lost to Kansas City since their first meeting in 2009 when an early red card to Kasey Keller left Sounders FC with 10 men for the majority of the match. Since then, four matches have ended with stoppage-time winners leaving KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen pulling the ball out of the back of his net and Seattle celebrating late-arriving success. However, it was Nielsen that raised his hands in glory in the 2012 U.S. Open Cup when Kansas City won in a shootout at Sporting Park over Sounders FC.

Matches between Seattle and Kansas City have never lacked for excitement and Saturday shapes up to be no different with a sellout crowd expected at CenturyLink Field to greet the Sounders, new and old, in the new season that is about to unfold.

“It’s going to be an awesome spectacle,” Seattle captain Brad Evans said. “I know that everybody’s pumped for it and I don’t think guys realize how much extra you get playing in front of our fans on opening kick.”

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