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Q&A: Sporting Director Chris Henderson - Part II

In the second part of our talk with Chris Henderson, we discuss the MLS Cup Playoffs and the future of the USMNT.

In Part Two of our conversation with Sounders FC Sporting Director Chris Henderson, we discuss the future of the team, the MLS Cup final and the U.S. National Team as it prepares for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Q: What areas do you think this team needs to address for 2014?

Henderson: I think we need to get a little bit faster as a team and maybe a little bit younger. I think those things are going to help. Our possession and movement of the ball can improve and those are things we’ve got to work on. When you have the ball you do a lot less defending and that saves a lot of energy. If you do that over the course of a whole season, that’s going to save you in those games that really count. You have a rhythm. You keep the ball. You defend less. Hopefully that leads to getting scored on less and scoring more goals. I think those are a few of the key things.

Check out Part I of the interview here

Q: Having Clint Dempsey for the whole year – at least, minus the World Cup break – how does that affect Clint and what the team is able to do?

Henderson: Having him through the preseason, for sure is going to help us. We’re going to be able to work on some team tactics and I’m sure there are going to be some additions that may miss that part, but there is going to be a core group of players that are going to keep that mantra. When you think about how the Seahawks handle tough games. When Pete Carroll is asked how he gets through that, he says there are key things that they worked on and some key words that we said at the beginning of the year that they said in those tough times that got them through those moments. I think if we can get the leaders on the team to keep that through the season, that’s going to be really important as we go forward.

Q: The schedule starts with nine consecutive Saturday matches. How much will that help the rhythm of the team to start the season?

Henderson: Four out of five of those are on the road, but I think that will be important to getting a game rhythm and a training rhythm. I think it’s really going to help us. With Dave Tenney and what he does with the fitness and with Sigi and the energy that he’s going to bring to the season and the preparation and the players are going to be focused and ready from the beginning.

Q: With the potential for a lot of turnover, how can that schedule help gelling that group?

Henderson: I think with no Champions League, it will help the team gel. Young players can make an impact this year, whether it’s a new player or someone we’ve had for the last couple of years. With the core leaders we have – with Dempsey and Alonso and Evans – I think they can help bring this group along and help the young players get into the philosophy and the character of this club and the history of what this team is and getting back to keeping the ball. If you put all that together, that’s going to help us gel and getting a long preseason to work.

Q: How close are we to establishing a definition of Sounders FC soccer?

Henderson: I think we’re closer. I think there are times when we get closer and then maybe we go in the other direction, but we’ve been right around that line. I think it’s really important with the people who have been at this club for a long time to continue to have that history. When you lose that, it’s hard to get it back. The character of the people who are here is really important and what they are playing for. All of those things in the culture of the club are established at the beginning of the year – the team rules, who you’re playing for, what you’re playing for, a little bit in the vernacular. It needs to be set early and those key words need to be reminders during the year of why we’re here and what we’re doing.

Q: We are seeing a lot of the Academy alums in the NCAA Tournament and having success at the college level. The first class of Academy players are finishing their junior seasons now – how do they fit into the plans in the offseason and the future?

Henderson: First with our Academy and our Homegrown players, we’re all thankful that Joe Roth and Adrian Hanauer and the owners have committed the money each year. They’ve put a lot of money into our Academy and now you’re seeing the first group of players to come through – guys like Sean Okoli, Jordan Morris, Aaron Kovar, Darwin Jones, Gallagher, Lange and Schweitzer – they are all guys that we’ve followed very closely. I think this year there are going to be guys from that Homegrown group that are part of our roster. We’re so happy we don’t have to go and draft them or give something up for the quality that we’re getting in those guys. Some of them could come and make an impact like DeAndre has, depending on the position and the space we have, but they’re going to be pushing right away and that’s what our Academy system is for. I think our Academy coaches have done a fantastic job of developing these guys and preparing them. They go away to college and grow up a little bit and live away from home – that helps the adjustment to being in a locker room with a guy who’s got kids and talking about different types of things than games he’s playing on Xbox. We’ve got a good balance. When you look at some of the accolades that some of the Academy guys have done in their freshman and sophomore years it’s great. And you watch games on TV and they’re talking about Seattle Sounders FC Academy players and that’s really something we’re proud of. It’s going to be even more so when they’re wearing our jersey and playing at home in front of 45,000 people.

Q: Seeing the atmosphere and the competitive game between the University of Washington and Seattle University in the NCAA Tournament, what can that do for soccer in this city if that rivalry keeps progressing the way it has?

Henderson: To see the crowd and the energy in that stadium was really exciting. I’m really happy for Jamie Clark at UW and Pete Fewing at Seattle U. They’ve both done a fantastic job and I’m really proud of both of those guys. To see our Academy guys on both of those teams, that made us really proud at the Sounders. That really adds to the soccer hotbed of the Pacific Northwest. We really feel like we’re one of the centers of soccer in this country. It’s just going to build and build the fans. I heard some of the same cheers that we have at our games and it’s something that we all should be proud of – people that are growing up here and a part of this scene.

Q: This is the 100th year of U.S. Soccer. When you look back at your time with the national team and the success they had this year, what does that mean to you?

Henderson: It’s great pride for me. I spent from 1985 – I’m sounding old – until 2002, I was part of the national team program at one level or another and that’s a long time. It was most of my professional career and I went through all the youth national teams – a Youth World Cup, the Olympic team. I think I was a soldier for the federation and I think the benefits are coming to the players now for the years that maybe a huge group of us put in. We all lived together from 1990-1994 training for the ‘94 World Cup. There were some grueling days, but there’s a lot of pride there. I still have all my U.S. jerseys and when there’s a game on, I’m throwing on one of those jerseys. I have a lot of pride for those guys and it’s fun to look and see as players pass me on the caps chart. There is a lot of pride to be on that list and represent the U.S. so many times. It’s something that I’ll cherish forever. What Jurgen Klinsmann has done here – and I know there was some skepticism in the beginning – it’s a lot like what Pete Carroll has done with the Seahawks. He’s going through and making the guys feel confident and believing in them. A lot of it, when the abilities of your opponent are so close, is believing in yourself and knowing what you are going to be doing in your position and your confidence. I think he instills that in his players. I have a really good feeling about this team for Brazil. I think a South American team is going to win the World Cup, but I think the U.S. has a chance to move on and hopefully move farther.

Q: The MLS Cup final is next week. What is your feeling on those two teams and your view of what the game is going to bring?

Henderson: I think it’s going to be a great final. In Kansas City, you’re going to have a great environment for a final in that tight, small stadium that’s beautiful. The style of both teams is a pretty attractive style. They play attacking and keeping the ball in possession and fighting for set pieces at times. I think both teams do the little details well and it could come down to some small details that make the difference. For me, I won a championship with Kansas City and we won the Supporters’ Shield and I was the leading scorer of the team and I have a feeling for the Kansas City team because I have a history there. But I’m also good friends with the Salt Lake staff and I think they’ve done a great job there. I have a pick in my head and I’m not going to make it public, but I did have good times in Kansas City.