A new Designated Player, a former Sounders great, a two-time Olympian and the first ever draft pick of Seattle Sounders FC all joined (or rejoined) the club late in 2012. While other teams around MLS are active in the early offseason, these four players will all be regulars in Seattle next season. If through training with the club their work with teammates improves the team doesn't just get better, it likely adds points.
Three of those men joined the team on transfer, while Steve Zakuani took until late in the season to remind everyone of the player he was. He appeared in four of the final five matches of the MLS season. While just one of those was in a start, it was also in the final match of the season. His classic speed move down the flank pin opposing defending fullbacks and even the wide mid back.
It took a long time for Zakuani to come back from his injury as he earned six starts, six subs and 497 minutes scoring twice and earning an assist in all competitive first team minutes. He also captured two goals in his 224 minutes of Reserve League play.
Hidden a bit deeper is the fact that of returning Sounders Zakuani is not just the fastest of the regular midfielders, he is also one of the best passers. Inside the attacking third he was the second best passer on the Sounders completing 77% of passes. Unlike other wide midfielders for Seattle, his primary passes are short interchanges either into the elbow as he cuts square or straight to the endline for the next pass. He will also drop it back to reset the attack. But his speed and scoring threat force a change in the opposing defense from what Alex Caskey and Brad Evans offered through most of the regular season.
On the other wing Seattle saw the emergence of Mario Martinez. A two-time Olympian with Honduras Martinez missed practice and playing time due to multiple national team calls. His decent service replicates Mauro Rosales' service while his willingness to shoot the potent shot from distance can remind observers of Fredy Montero.
But due to those absences it was apparent that he was not always on the same page as the rest of the team. He also needed to adapt to a more firm role than the free roaming forward he is for Honduras, with Seattle he is a more traditional midfielder. With more practices, weeks of them even, Martinez should fit in with the full backs and center mids in such a way that where he is and how he receives the ball is intuitive rather than requiring a moment to think about his needs. Like all sports, that intuitive play brought on by many practice sessions is the key to unlocking the greatness of team play rather than moments of singular specialness.
Christian Tiffert came to Sounders FC as the sixth Designated Player in the club's short MLS history. Unlike those other five players he is not a pure attacking player, but instead a modern central midfielder. His job is a near even marriage of defense and offense. Both a ball winner and eventually a playmaker. It was as a playmaker where things can improve.
Tiffert's ability to serve a decent set-piece ball indicate that he is a capable passer. His throughballs were mistimed on occasion. One only need to look at Seattle's other midfield, midseason addition to see the improvement capable of training within the system and melding with his teammates. Alvaro Fernandez' first full season was amazing. When the LA Galaxy added Keane in late 2011 his impact was minimal, but in 2012 he fit with the team and helped power them to a huge second half. If Tiffert can make those levels of improvement he will not just be a defensive stalwart and mover of the ball, but an assist man from deeper positions that Seattle has yet to see from any player.
Both Tiffert and Martinez were in the bottom half of the Sounders' pass completion rate in the final third. Considering their skills there is no reason to think that repeats in 2013.
Marcus Hahnemann made only one appearance in 2012. Coming in as a potential second keeper meant that was expected, but the Sounders used keepers other than Michael Gspurning 19 times last season. Those players had a decent 1.13 Goals Against Average, but only recorded five shutouts. All were suitable in the role, but not dominant. If Hahnemann can show flashes of what made him a longtime regular in England the Sounders will strengthen a position where they already had the third-best player in 2012.
But Hahnemann's ability to practice with the team in preseason and fit with the team is not necessarily about direct on-field improvement. Instead he offers veteran education, as he did on the 2010 World Cup squad for the United States. He brings a love for Seattle and the Sounders, an understanding of the culture that few can have. And his willingness to work with young players not yet on the first team, educate the other keepers and train hard to make his professional return should show everyone that success is not an entitlement but a demand for hard work every day.
So while everyone waits to see what offseason additions are made, just remember there are four players that had a mere half-season or less with the team that should all improve the squad with the preseason that starts in just under four weeks.