Preseason camp tends to be a distillation of an offseason of movement. Players come and go. Injuries are resolved (or not). Camp trialists raise eyebrows. It’s essentially the pull of the curtain on what a front office has been up to.
Fortunately and unfortunately for the Sounders, they didn’t have much an offseason to work.
The fortunate part is obvious. The Sounders had a short offseason because they won an MLS Cup in mid-December. But that also shortened the offseason significantly, forcing the team to move on the 2017 season quickly. Whether or not the Sounders even had anything planned for this offseason, a big splash was never all that likely with little more than a month between the end of 2016 and the start of 2017.
The result is an increasingly intriguing Sounders camp. A handful of roster changes over last year and the dangling prospect of Clint Dempsey’s return to full health should make the next month and a half and interesting one in terms of projecting out the starting lineup on March 4 for the Sounders’ season opener in Houston.
Here are, by my estimation, the five most interesting players to monitor over the lifespan of the 2017 Sounders preseason camp.
5. Tony Alfaro
The Sounders’ starting lineup is mostly a striated group of either older, established professionals or younger guys who’ve firmly entrenched themselves. That makes Tony Alfaro’s place among returning guys unique. Alfaro didn’t have much of a chance to prove himself at center back in 2016, which made complete roster sense. He was competing with Chad Marshall, Zach Scott, Roman Torres and a flexed Brad Evans for much of the year. Playing time doesn’t exactly come easy for a rookie in that situation.
This season should be a bit different. The Sounders enter camp lacking roster depth at the back, which helps explain why Gale Agbossoumonde, a 25-year-old former teammate of Steve Zakuani’s at Akron, was a surprise camp addition (and why the Sounders drafted two center backs). Alfaro, though, is now the closest to first team center back minutes behind Torres and Marshall, and that’s encouraging news. In limited minutes in 2016 Alfaro looked like he could do the job, both physically and along the ground. He’ll need more time for assessment, obviously, but that’s what camp is for. Alfaro could easily become the No. 3 center back headed into March with a strong camp.
4. Harry Shipp
Had Harry Shipp joined the Sounders after the 2015 season fresh off an encouraging few years with the Chicago Fire, we’d almost certainly be talking about his bonafides as a central midfielder partner for Osvaldo Alonso. Gonzalo Pineda had just retired, and the majority of Shipp’s history as a player had been in the middle. But as it is, he’s joining a year later than that, after a quiet year with Montreal and after the Sounders plugged that hole with Cristian Roldan.
Now? Shipp’s deployment is wide open. Given the Sounders’ lack of width options on the roster at the moment, that certainly seems to be his most likely area of concentration. Shipp often played wide for Montreal, and even though the system wasn’t his ideal (Seattle fits him much better), he made it work. So could Shipp be deployed wide right? Or left? Or perhaps Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer opts to push Nicolas Lodeiro wide, pull Shipp inside and create some overlapping havoc in the high central channel? Shipp is probably the most malleable player on the roster in the final third, and we won’t know his exact direction until after camp.
3. Brad Evans
Over the last two years, Brad Evans has been something of a positional rag doll. In 2015, he was deployed as a central defender for the first time after having played most of his career as a defensive midfielder. At the same time, he was playing right back for the U.S. Men’s National Team and moonlighting as a wide midfielder and even once as a left back at the club level. Evans is so steady and so mistake-averse that his movement in this sense was almost inevitable.
But that doesn’t make projecting his fit in the 2017 lineup any easier. Evans finished the 2016 season as a super-sub. It was a direct result of the emergence of Roldan, the return to health of Torres and the steadiness of Tyrone Mears. Those three positions - central midfield, center back and right back - were Evans’ most natural ins to the starting XI, and Schmetzer was reticent to break up that chemistry. Roldan and Torres don’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon, but Mears’ offseason departure opens up a gap. Evans could fit in as a wide midfielder on the right - the staff certainly might try him there - but right back seems like a more natural fit. Be sure to watch Evans’ role this preseason. It could surprise.
2. Clint Dempsey
Clint Dempsey’s camp won’t be quite as intriguing in a positional sense. The Sounders know exactly what they have in Dempsey, who’s been in town now for more than three years. And it isn’t particularly interesting in terms of his starting status. Dempsey’s been so uniquely consistent over the years that if he’s healthy, he’s a starter. To watch him execute a no-look square ball in the opening day of training camp on Tuesday, you saw the same old Dempsey up to his same old tricks.
But his health is an obvious question mark. Dempsey was given the go-ahead to train this preseason, which is naturally the first step. The Sounders have been necessarily cautious with their Designated Player star since his irregular heartbeat first cropped up in the final third of 2016. But being given the green light was a positive step, and it’ll be interesting to monitor where he goes from here. How much does he play in the preseason matches? How does he look, fitness-wise? Can he regain the form he was just beginning to hit as he was knocked out for the season last year? All questions that’ll have answers inside the next two months.
1. Oniel Fisher
Just this week, the Sounders announced they’d traded Tyrone Mears' rights to Atlanta United FC for allocation money. Mears had his ups and downs in Seattle like any player, and at 33 he probably doesn’t have much professional life left in his legs. But the fact remains that Mears was an important part of last year’s title team as a marauding right back who spent much of his time in the attacking half. And it’s important to remember Mears started the 2016 season on the bench. It wasn’t until Oniel Fisher picked up a red card in the season opener that Mears elbowed his way back into the starting role. He never gave it back up.
Barring a transfer splash, the Sounders certainly look as though they’ll be narrow again in the final third, which is why the fullback’s role in this system is so crucial. In 2016, Schmetzer relied on his fullbacks to provide the majority of the width while his makeshift wingers operated centrally. That’ll likely be the case again, and Fisher is the most natural overlapper at right back. If Fisher is ready and wins his camp battles, he’s the most natural like-for-like replacement for Mears. If the Sounders think they have something here, they’ll be scary on the flanks with fullbacks Joevin Jones and Fisher.