Notes from the press box

So during the Earthquakes-Sounders match I had the chance to sit in the press box. Thanks to my writings for American Soccer News, I get a press pass, even though the presence of a college student draws some funny looks and remarks of "are you sure you're in the right place?" The press experience was new for me, as it probably would be for most of you. So here's a few interesting things I noted.

- I had to wait 10 minutes for them to make enough phone calls to get me my proper credentials. At the end of this process, I was told that a Sounders PR person (who will go unnamed) wanted to meet me. Well, really, he/she just wanted to express their annoyance with me. And after that, I accidentally sat in the seat of some KOMO reporter but figured it out just in time. All in all, it was an inauspicious start to my press career.

- The press box is surprisingly big - it wasn't close to full, and there were 75 to 90 people in it.

- The back of the press pass specifically says "No autographs allowed during media access periods." Damn.

- There's a press box announcer for official scoring, and he mispronounced Jaqua as 'jack-wa.' Seriously? It's been four games, and you still can't figure out how to say the name of our starting forward? Put some effort into your job, man. Also, he then left his mic on, because after an apparent Sounders handball he said "uh-oh" which was heard loud and clear by everyone in the box. Brought a good laugh out of everyone.

- I got to sit behind two San Jose writers, which was very entertaining. They muttered and cursed under their breaths whenever anything bad happened, which for their team was quite frequently. When Cam Weaver subbed on for them, one of them audibly said "Come on big man, f****** make something happen." In the 85th minute one of them got up, and when his partner asked where he was going, he replied, "to get some snacks." I never saw him again.

- The press box has food, but more importantly, free Jones Soda! Win.


A few bad apples

In general, Sounders fans have been absolutely amazing during the run-up to the beginning of the 2009 season, and the first few weeks into it. 3 sellouts, standing the whole game, raising scarves, chanting, cheering, generally being great soccer supporters. But during this period everything was going right for the franchise. The question hung overhead - how would fans respond to the first bit of adversity?

Well, it came Saturday night in a tough 1-0 loss to Kansas City. And the response was disappointing. During the game objects were thrown at the referees, though I didn't see anything worse than what looked like a paper airplane. And after the game, as the players walked off the pitch in the southeast corner of the stadium, two separate fans reportedly threw beer down on the players. One of the fans was ejected by police. At the other end of the pitch the referees were walking off, and I saw at least one fan spit down on them.

This is crap. Sounders fans can't be doing this. So maybe the referees didn't have a particularly good game. Guess what? It happens. This is MLS, which is not the top league in the world, and as such we won't be treated to the top referees in the world either. We have to get used to it, and we have to be smarter. And there's no excuse for throwing beer, or any projectiles really, at the players on the pitch. Ever.

Granted, this was a few isolated incidents, and the majority of the fans were reasonable, sending nothing more than a massive chorus of boos at the referees. But it's the bad apples that get the negative publicity. And as a young club, negative publicity is something we should avoid like the plague. So let's continue to be passionate - but reasonable - fans. There's a lot of season left, and it will contain a lot of adversity. Sounders fans should deal with it better.


Early season playoff dreams

There are a lot of people out there who might put aside the early success of the Seattle Sounders as a fluke, as a good thing that certainly can't last. They might point to the fact that teams that have started well fade very often, and the reverse is true as well. Houston last year being exhibit A - a terrible start which left them at the bottom of the league didn't stop them from being the best team in the West by years end. So, these people say, the success of the Sounders is great and all. But they're still an expansion team and they probably won't make the playoffs.

Don't listen to them. Already, Seattle is in prime position for the postseason.

Facts are facts, and 9 points are 9 points - the number Seattle has through 3 games. What'll it take to make the playoffs? All along I've been using 40 points as my benchmark. In a 30 game season, an average record of 10-10-10 will get you to 40 points. 8 teams make the playoffs out of 15 teams in the league, meaning the 8th team will necessarily be the average team in the league. Call it 40 points.

So with that as the target, and 9 of those 40 points out of the way, Seattle now has 27 games to get 31 points. And 13 of those games are at home, in the friendly confines of Qwest Field, which is quickly proving to be the most difficult venue in MLS after just two games. (Well, unless you have a soft spot for fans that throw beer and leave early.) Would 7 wins out of those 13 games be to ambitious a target? I don't think so. 7 wins gives you 21 points, making a total of 30. And yes, other games could yield more points in the form of draws. Which would be great.

With 30 points (at least) at home not seeming like too difficult a target, that leaves the other 14 games to pick up 10 more road points. This would be harder than you think: a few teams didn't manage this last season. But that still seems like a reasonable target, making two goals for the remainder of the season.

- Win 7 games at home
- Get 10 points on the road

Accomplish both of these, and I guarantee the Sounders will be playing in the playoffs in 2009.


Winning on the road

With the Sounders about to head off to their first road game in franchise history, I thought I would take a look at how past expansion teams have fared on the road. The statistics are... ghastly, really.

San Jose, 2008. 2-8-5. 11 points.
Toronto FC, 2007. 1-10-4. 7 points.
Real Salt Lake, 2005. 0-14-2. 2 points (!).
Chivas USA, 2005. 1-11-4. 7 points.

Those are some truly horrible numbers. But in reality, in MLS it's very difficult to win games on the road no matter how new or old your team is. Last year, no team won more than 6 games on the road. Three accomplished that feat, and those three were the best Eastern Conference teams - Columbus, New England, and Chicago. The average number of games won on the road last year was 3.35. Out of 15 total games!

Clearly success on the road will not come easily, and the Sounders shouldn't expect their success thus far to carry over to Toronto on Saturday, in one of the most hostile environments in the league. Anything other than a loss would be a huge surprise to me. So temper your expectations for the upcoming match.

Of course, if they *do* manage to win somehow, then we could be in for a special season indeed.


The Jeff Parke Saga

Jeff Parke won't be signing with the Seattle Sounders after all. And I honestly don't believe it's his fault.

According to Jose Romero's always excellent blog at the Seattle Times, Jeff Parke is no longer with the Sounders. He was barely just with them to begin with, having played in one reserve match and practicing a couple times without signing a contract. But Wednesday he left the team and seems unlikely to return.

Parke's case has been an unusual one. He was picked by Seattle from New York in the expansion draft, and did not have a contract with MLS at the time, making him effectively a free agent, though his rights belong to Seattle for the next two years. Instead of negotiating a deal with the Sounders, he attempted to fulfill one of his dreams by playing in Europe, but two trials in Belgium met with no success. He returned to the USA and Seattle last week to presumably attempt and work out a deal. That, clearly, has fallen through.

So what the hell is going on? To get some insight, check out this interview of Parke from last week. One particularly interesting quote on his negotiations with New York prior to the expansion draft - 'They gave me a number and at the end of the day I didn't agree with it," Parke said of his final contract talks with New York. "That was that. I obviously had some hurt and some anger toward the club for how it was handled and how I was kind of just left by myself.' He also mentions needing to look out for his family, something that has come up with him multiple times. And that's fair. He made about 60,000 last year, which isn't bad but is certainly less than someone as good as him should be making.

What this insightful interview shows us is that for Parke, it's about the money. The reason he was left unprotected by the Red Bulls wasn't because of his steroid suspension, or because he was an inferior talent. It was that he would have been too expensive. Fair enough. So Parke jumped for Europe, trying to get the big bucks. When that didn't work, he came back to Seattle to begin contract talks. And things looked good. But remember Sigi Schmidt's comment about Parke? Something along the lines of 'It's always good to have depth'. From that, and from the money Parke is probably looking for, upwards of 150 thousand dollars, the problem was clear. In terms of the roster, Parke was a luxury, not a necessity. The Sounders don't have a lot of money left under the cap, and what they do have they'd probably like to save for summer additions. They simply weren't able to offer Parke as much as he wanted.

It's a shame that Jeff Parke apparently isn't going to work out in Seattle. He's a very good player, a quality MLS starter, and we could use some more of those. I would imagine the next step would be shopping his rights to a defense-deficient team that has some salary cap space to work with. (New England, perhaps, to fill the hole left by Michael Parkhurst?)

I don't blame Parke for looking for the cash, though, or the Sounders for not giving it to him. What I do blame is the Scrooge-like salary cap of MLS that makes keeping players like Parke in America next-to-impossible. After this year, with the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring, I hope we can see some major changes to the salary structures of MLS to keep things like the Jeff Parke saga from happening. Because in this situation, there is no winner.


The Sounders ad campaign

I've read the sports section of the Seattle Times for years. As a five year old, it was the first thing I began reading. And throughout all the years I've been doing that, I can't remember any time an advertisement was on the front page of the sports section.

Monday, though, I was shocked and delighted to see a huge Sounders ad in glorious full color, green and blue. It's just a incredibly well done ad. First off, it takes up probably a sixth of the entire front page. In large block letters are the words 'every minute counts,' a reference to both the teams 'give us your full 90!' slogan as well as the scarcity of Sounders tickets. The date of the next match (Saturday!) is given, along with information on how to get tickets. Alongside is a picture of a fan, green-clad, standing, yelling and holding a scarf. Finally, the slogan and a stylized logo are in the corner. [EDIT] And upon reading the sports today, another similar ad was on the front page. Damn. Pictures of both below - Monday's is on top, Wednesday's is on the bottom. Click below for a better quality image.So basically what these ads have done is tell every single literate sports fan in Seattle that the Sounders have hugely passionate fans, that it's going to be difficult to get tickets to join them, and - oh yeah - there just happens to be a game this weekend, so you should probably act fast. It's a brilliant bit of advertising.

Every Sounders fan really has to give huge props to both the ownership and the marketing departments/firms they've hired. The ownership because ads in the front page of the sports can't come cheap. Not only that, I've seen Sounders ads on the front page of the Times website, billboard ads, bus-side ads, you name it, they've done it. Joe Roth and co. are willing to spend big bucks to get big recognition, sacrificing short-term revenue for long-term popularity. And that's on top of the thousand or so scarves that have been distributed across the city for free. Which is where marketing comes in. Whoever thought up the 'scarf Seattle' campaign needs a raise. I've heard many people, not soccer fans, talk about the free scarves, and that's contributed to the overall interest in the Sounders. Guerilla marketing works and the Sounders are going about it wonderfully.
And hanging a giant scarf from a downtown building, from a bridge over Aurora Avenue, to catch the eyes of thousands as they drive by? It's just incredible stuff, especially for a soccer team in America, to be doing.

We're only one game into the history of Sounders FC. We shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back quite yet. There's a lot of stuff we, as fans, still have to learn, and we probably shouldn't be singing praises of everything Sounders related and thinking of ourselves as God's or Allah's or Xenu's gift to MLS. We aren't. But I can say with utter certainty that we have the best marketing in the league. The other 14 MLS teams would do well to take notice.


The 2009 season in review - 4th place

It's been 4 days now. 4 days since the FC Dallas game. And I still find myself checking the MLS website multiple times a day, just to look at the season standings and give myself some tangible proof that no, I'm not dreaming, and yes, we actually did it.

The season is over, but the playoffs are just beginning, and in their inaugural year in MLS the Sounders will be taking part. And maybe it's a little bit silly to recap the year now, since we have at least two games remaining, but just thinking about it makes me want to just smile and jump up and down. Actually writing about it is causing my fingers to shake with glee. I can't help it. Despite what the owners said, what the coaches said, what the players said, I never really expected this team to make the playoffs this year. Even as the 4th place team in the west, 8th overall. My expectations were never that high.

But then who could have forseen, really, the perfect storm of events that seemed to form around this team? I mean, it feels just a little bit too much like one of Joe Roth's cheesy movies. How else could Fredy Montero have led the league in goals, in his first year in MLS, as a friggin 22 year old? In what other world could Keller and Marshall have somehow found the fountain of youth, keeping our goals-against numbers down in respectable territory? It was really a magical run. It's a cliche, but there's no other word. Somehow as the season went along, the team coalesced, the whole being more than the sum of the parts. Or however that phrase goes.

And we were no small part of it. Us, the fans, providing what was arguably the best atmosphere in all of MLS, though I'm sure Toronto and DC United fans would quibble with that. I mean, we had one of the best home records in the league. That seems to be pretty good proof that something is working. And maybe some of it is the turf surface or the long travel distance. But you can't tell me that, when Jaqua poked in that stoppage time winner against the Rapids, that he wasn't being boosted by the crowd somehow. I like to think we gave him that extra inch on his stretch to toe-poke the ball into the back of the net. Crazy? Yes, but that's the way this whole season has been.

You really can't single out one player that made the difference. True, Freddy Ljungberg being healthy and able to start 23 games was a huge boost. But so was Nyassi, flitting down the wing, tormenting outside defenders from every team. So was Alonso, becoming our own defensive force in the center of the pitch. Le Toux, Riley, Evans, you could name any one of the regular starters. And it wasn't just them. Stephen King off the bench, Zakuani as a dangerous reserve. Jarrod Smith! Who would have guessed that Jarrod Smith would become a fan favorite, just for the effort and hilarious clumsiness he showed in his rare appearances? He even got a goal against Los Angeles, bless his Kiwi heart. Although I'm still fairly certain he intended it to be a cross instead of a shot.

So the dream season lives on, at least for a few more weeks. It's been unreal to get to this point. But I'd like it to go further. I'd like to see just how much this city, which has seemingly adopted the Sounders as their own, would go crazy over a deep playoff run. Seeing green and blue scarves on random passers-by in downtown Seattle... who could have guessed? And I'm imagining... I can't help it, but I am... I'm picturing a sold-out Qwest Field, top to bottom, 67,000 strong, to watch the home side in MLS Cup. It is, after all, only 3 matches away.

But first we have to get thru Houston. And I can honestly say I wouldn't mind if this fairy-tale of a season ended after the first round. Because even if this is a movie, it could be Rocky, where the lovable underdog loses in the end. And that'd be alright. The ride just to get here has been indescribably wonderful.

Besides. There's always time for a sequel.


The 2009 season in review - 6th place

(this is the first of a 3 part series previewing the Sounders FC season by reviewing it. confused? great. read on.)

Tonight I put the ticket stub from the FC Dallas game on my shelf, next to the other 14-odd tickets I've gone through since March. Next to them sit an assorted pile of other Sounders FC knicknacks I've accumulated as the inaugural season has gone by. (A Sounders cowbell? Really?) They're probably worth nothing, same as the tickets, but they are tangible reminders of a season that I'll never forget. The sentimental value is far more than the actual product.

That ticket, and the ones next to it, are in a way a microcosm of the season. Sure, the 2009 campaign for the Sounders FC wasn't the best, and a sixth place finish isn't particularly sexy. But it was the first sixth place finish ever. Yes, the tickets aren't worth much more than the 10% off coupon to the team shop printed on the back, but they're the first season's tickets. I'll treasure them forever, as I will this season, much more than I would saving 2 dollars on a Sounders trash bin.

Objectively, it would be hard to make a case for treasuring a season in MLS in which the team placed ahead of only Colorado and the LA Galaxy. For most teams, this is a normal and expected feat. Looking at it from a completely rational point of view, the on-pitch play wasn't the greatest. (Relative to MLS, I mean. You European-only fans can hold your jokes back.) As we expected, it took a while for the team to come together. The defensive line never really did seem to fire on all cylinders, bailed out many times by some timely tackles by President Hurtado and James Riley. But the scoring compensated for that somewhat. I lost count of all the times Jaqua and Montero combined in the area, and their 20 goals between them was nothing to sneeze at. And some of the young guys really stepped up to solidify their places in the starting lineup for years to come - Nyassi and Alonso especially.

There was just never that sense of cohesion. And it showed for the first several games. But something went *click*, eventually, and the early summer months were very promising. I still remember the week in early August where if we had ended the season right then, Seattle would have been in the playoffs. But then a road loss at Salt Lake happened, and another heartbreaking loss on a late goal, and we were back out of the picture. The end of season road trip didn't help, either, losing three straight games against Eastern Conference teams. But by then we were well and truly out of it, and 2009 had dissolved from 'promising' back into 'expansion doldrums". The rational observer would look at the course of the season and regard it as a disappointment.

That's the great thing about sports, though - the complete and utter lack of rationality. Was it logical that my favorite moment of this year, not just in sports, in everything, was walking four blocks through downtown Seattle wearing a garish shade of green singing at the top of my lungs? With thousands more doing the same beside me? Of course not. And yet something stirred in my heart every time I watched 11 men kick a ball around, directed by a Baloo-looking man on the sidelines. It's passion. Pure, nearly unbridled passion. And that's what makes sports, soccer in particular, great. For 90 minutes 15 times a year you can leave all the numbers behind and indulge yourself, along with tens of thousands of your neighbors, in what is truly a beautiful game.

(Granted, the midfield efforts of one Peter Vagenas could hardly be described as 'beautiful'. 'Soul-suckingly depressing' might be a better fit. But let's not ruin the moment.)

So it's true that the season wasn't totally successful. Eight wins is nothing to write home about. Our designated player only appeared in 17 games and tallied but 3 goals. Kasey Keller faced more shots per game than any other keeper in MLS. Le Toux missed a penalty by about 30 feet in that US Open Cup qualifier. Negative numbers all. But not enough to overcome this number - one. As in season number one. I will always remember the 2009 season for reasons that defy statistics and logic.

But if we could just graft Nate Sturgis's one good leg onto Freddy Ljungberg somehow, giving him two functional lower limbs, I think we might just have a shot at the postseason next year. I would treasure that too.


The 2009 season in review - 8th place

(this is the first of a 3 part series previewing the Sounders FC season by reviewing it. confused? great. read on.)

Well, I guess everybody told us so.

Yes, the memorable 2009 season has come to a close for the Sounders FC, and it ends with us settled comfortably in last place, no team within six points of us. Now to be sure, in the stands, in the city, it was quite an experience. The full stadium for the opening day was an indicator of what was to come, as all season long we had sold-out or mostly sold-out games.

Unfortunately, the play on the pitch was an indicator as well. The first 2-0 loss, to the Red Bulls at home, wasn't so bad, with the festive atmosphere in the air. On opening day the result was secondary. But the 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake the next week was a little tiresome. And then the 2-1 loss at Toronto. Hell, we didn't even get a win in league play until May. Far from the surprise contender that the Sounders aspired to be, they were the anchor of the west - and them some. When we lost to San Jose at home, we should have known things weren't going to get a whole lot better. Which they didn't.

The reasons were numerous. The backline was, as predicted, atrocious. I'm a little surprised Kasey Keller never got a sore back from bending over to pick so many balls out of the back of his net. It took a long time for the defense to gel, and when they did, the on-field play had only a minor increase, because the talent just wasn't there. Marshall was constantly beaten, Sturgis was injured, Ianni and Wahl were outclassed, Hurtado struggled to adapt to the physical nature of MLS. But it wasn't just the defense that struggled. With Ljungberg, the supposed superstar, injured seemingly half the season, nonchalantly sitting on the bench eating swedish fish or whatever it is that Swedes eat, the attack wasn't as good as predicted. Evans couldn't do it all on his own, nor could Jaqua. And the callups from the USL proved that there was in fact a large gulf in talent between the two leagues.

But the on-field play wasn't the only negative to come out what can only be described as a nightmare of a season. The justification of all the naysayers, the ones who said we'd be just like every other expansion, was painful. Because we *were* just like every expansion team. The fans in Portland must be dancing with glee while they play catch with their USL trophy. The electric mood in Portland, what with their incoming franchise in MLS and all, is in direct contrast to that of Seattle. The Sounders are just another sports team now. The glamour is gone. Last week I saw a Freddy Ljungberg kit show up on the rack at Value Village, right next to the Supersonics Patrick Ewing jersey. And as I watched, someone bought the Ewing. That hurt me.

All in all, I suppose I can't blame the one bright spot on the pitch, Fredy Montero, for skipping town in July to play in Spain's La Liga. He only had to play out half the season in front of what were mostly passionate, vocal crowds, even at the last game against Dallas. Which, fittingly, was a loss.

I suppose we can't really complain too much. After all, it was the inaugural season. And we did get to witness Chelsea FC beat down the Sounders - our Sounders - in magnificent fashion. We cheered our boys on even when the scoreline was 3-0, 4-0, 5-0. Because they were ours. And dammit, that's the most important thing I can come up with in terms of positivity. All those games where the team in green got manhandled, that was our team in green. The level of play wasn't the highest, to be sure, but it was our team. Seattle's team. And that's what matters.

Even though MLS Cup is next week, and will display the two best teams in MLS going at it, watching the New York Red Bulls take on the LA Galaxy in Qwest Field just won't be the same.

So here's to you, 2009. You sucked. Let's win more next year.


Season Preview - Real Salt Lake

Ten wins, ten losses and ten draws. Real Salt Lake were the very definition of average in 2008. And yet they made the playoffs, and were a post-widths distance away from taking New York to extra time in the Western Conference Final, a game that they dominated. So expectations are higher than they might be for any other average club.

And the Utah club is even easier to figure out going forward, because they hardly made any changes to their roster from 2008. But one of the late additions they made last season proved to have a crucial impact. Canadian winger Will Johnson served as a sparkplug, and had the goal of the year (well, officially, though I'd rate Marcelo Gallardo's audacious volley higher) on a ridiculously sublime flick, turn and blast. Outside of Johnson, this off-season they drafted a raw defensive mid project and claimed Ned Grabavoy off waivers. Pardon me for not being too excited. They are looking at adding Luis Miguel Escalada, a Argentine striker with potential but who is a bit of an unknown quantity at this point.

It is another Argentine that carries their team, and one who is one of the more unheralded stars in all of MLS. Javier Morales, totaler of 6 goals and 15 assists last year, is a fantastic presence in the attacking midfield role. On the other hand, if he gets hurt, RSL will struggle badly. He's joined in attack by Yura Movsisyan, whose name I incredibly spelled correctly from memory. Movsisyan really came on strong at the end of last season, and I'm not sure if he'll keep it up. Also at forward is Robbie Findley, who would be a great player if he didn't have the first touch of a drunken rhinocerous.

The back line, however, is where RSL really looks to stand out. Their defense is possibly the best in the west. A central defense of Nat Borchers and the excellent Jamison Olave, who came to Salt Lake from Fredy Montero's Deportivo Cali, is solid. With Olave signed for 4 more years, they have a good core to build around. Chris Wingert and Ian Joy on the wings are both very quality, plus there's good depth in defense as well. And I can't forget the heart and soul of Salt Lake, holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman. Though he does sport the ridiculous white-guy dreadlocks, he makes up for it with his consistently passionate play on the pitch. It's hard not to like Beckerman.

There aren't really any apparent weaknesses on the Real Salt Lake roster. Striker would probably be the thinnest position, but if Luis Miguel Escalada pans out then that isn't much of a question either. They definitely look to be better than average this year, and they should be drawing increased crowds to shiny new Rio Tinto Stadium, which is for my money the second-best venue in MLS. And a repeat to the playoffs looks likely. Yes, if you're a Real Salt Lake fan, there's a lot of reasons to be excited about 2009. Aside from the fact that you live in Salt Lake.


Season Preview - Chicago Fire

No team in MLS appears more confident heading into the 2009 campaign than the Chicago Fire. If you go to their team website, you will be greeted with an advertisment for a five-game ticket plan which includes, as they call it, 'Playoff Game One.' They're actually that sure that they'll make the playoffs this year.

And to be honest, they have good reason to be. Chicago was extremely strong last year, finishing second to the Columbus Crew both in the Eastern Conference regular season and conference finals, and missing out on MLS cup by just one goal. Everything appeared to be working well for the franchise, whether it was the on-field play, the notably strong and passionate fan support, the uniforms - ok, the block 'Best Buy' with the white stripe across the front does look a bit crap, but that's a minor point.

The best news of all is that they look to be almost exactly the same squad that they had last year. The only players they lost were low-impact reserves like Stephen King and Andy Herron. They return the entire defensive line, which with Wilman Conde, Bakary Soumare and Gonzalo Segares is certainly the best in the league. And if Dasan Robinson can stay healthy, it could be even better. Scary. Marco Pappa oozed potential playing on the wing in limited minutes last year. If he starts, watch out. Opposite him, Justin Mapp could be a truly standout winger if he decides to care for an entire season. Logan Pause couldn't attack goal to save his life, but he is still a solid defensive midfielder. He doesn't have to attack, though, because of the guys up front.

A lot of the offensive responsibilities rest on the hunched shoulders of number-10 attacking midfield Mexican legend Cuahtemoc Blanco. You can hate him for his scowling on-pitch theatrics, and many do, but it's hard to question his heart, passion and creative playmaking ability. And of course, he is aided up top by Brian McBride, himself an American legend. He's played in 3 World Cups, scored 62 goals in MLS, almost single-handedly saved Fulham from relegation in the EPL in 2008... the list of accolades goes on. Oh yeah, and Chris Rolfe is pretty decent too, what with 9 goals and 7 assists last year, playing his way into National Team contention. And I haven't even gotten into the potential of Mike Banner or Patrick Nyarko. Bottom line, Chicago are stacked.

(And did I mention that netminder Jon Busch was the league's top goalkeeper last year?)

In my opinion, the best teams in MLS are always those that have a solid lineup, all eleven spots, with no discernable weaknesses in the core of the starters. Houston had it in 2006 and 2007, as did New England. Columbus had it last year. Chicago looks to be that way this year. Unless they have a ridiculous amount of injuries, or Jon Busch forgets how to play keeper, the Fire look they'll make good on that promise for Playoff Game One. And possibly Playoff Game Two. If they aren't the best team in the league, they're mighty close.

Season Preview - FC Dallas

In some ways, the history of FC Dallas is a microcosm for all of Major League Soccer. They first came into existence in 1996 as the Dallas Burn, with hideous uniforms and a giant football stadium as their home. This existence was very shaky in the late 90s and early 2000's, as they actually played in a high school football stadium one season to save money. But eventually, they moved into their own shiny soccer stadium, rebranded with a less ridiculous name and uniforms, and acquired a local rival in Houston. Since then, the future has been bright.

On the pitch, however, the recent past has been ugly for Dallas. Finishing out of the playoffs last year, the hoops went through an extremely turbulent season involving a coaching change. They finished the year under the guidance of Schellas Hyndman, but still stumbled to the finish. FCD had talent on the team, and one of the leagues best overall players in forward Kenny Cooper, but they never seemed to gel and come together, especially in midfield. At times, the defense was shaky as well, with the sluggish Duilio Davino doing little more than taking up space on the pitch and the salary cap.

A full season under Hyndman - and especially, a full pre-season for the team to come together - sound help this team achieve their full potential. Or at least something close to it. If Cooper doesn't jet to Europe and stays around all season to partner with a rejuvinated Jeff Cunningham, the forwards will be very dangerous. The midfield looks to be much more settled now, with a true attacking midfielder in new Colombian signee David Fereirra filling what had been FC Dallas's biggest hole. Dallas also acquired Dave Van den Bergh, one of the very best left wingers in MLS. Andre Rocha on the other wing showed great promise and could have a breakout season this year. Not a lot has been done to better the defense, and that could be a weak point, though the addition by subtraction of Davino should help. And Dario Sala, my single least favorite player in the league, is nonetheless competant in goal. The team, to me, looks solid.

The biggest worries for FC Dallas may in fact be off the pitch. The franchise has long struggled to draw fans wherever they play. Every time I've watched their home games on tv, the gaping swaths of empty seats that fill Pizza Hut Park are very noticeable. And very recently have come reports that FCD have sold just 5000 tickets for their season opener (INCLUDING season tickets), a high-profile matchup against Cuahtemoc Blanco and the Chicago Fire. My reaction is somewhere between embarassed and saddened. Numbers like that, regardless of which team, are no good for the league.

I really do think that Dallas could make some noise this year, and gun to my head, I'd say they make the playoffs. Even as they have problems off the pitch, they have shored up most of their major weaknesses and look to be improving on it. And their attack looks balanced and powerful. FC Dallas are a club that should be putting on some entertaining displays of soccer under the Texas sun. The only question is if anyone will be there to watch them.


Season Preview - DC United

I like DC United. Really. Their uniforms are classy and their fan support is top-notch. And they have a wonderful tradition of winning, which is something almost every club in the young MLS lacks, and they added to it last year by taking the US Open Cup.

That success was deceptive, because for a team that expects to win every year, they failed to even make the playoffs in 2008. (Although, in fairness, United were still technically not eliminated until the final weekend of the season.) They were even worse in Concacaf Champions League play, looking completely uninspired and often trotting out second-team players who were totally outmatched. Down the stretch, the black and red were relying on USL callups to be the sparks in both defense (Greg Janicki) and attack (Boyzee Khumalo. Yes, that's really his name). The main problem on the field was newly signed playmaker Marcello Gallardo. Or rather, the lack of Gallardo on the field - while brilliant when healthy, he was injured more often than not. Goalkeeping woes and a leaky defense didn't help either.

Over the offseason, there was one big move made, which was the return of Christian Gomez to DC. Gomez, a beloved star central midfielder for United from 2004 to 2007, will hopefully fit right in to his old role after effectively a one-year exile in Colorado. He joins an attack that, when healthy, has more starpower than any other in the league. The legendary Jaime Moreno (who has the most goals all-time in MLS, 122) is partnered up top with Luciano Emilio, who himself has scored 31 times in just 2 seasons. With Fred and Santino Quaranta on the flanks, they have the potential to be very dangerous.

There is a major problem in attack, though - age. DC has some old dudes. Moreno was their best player last year, but he's 35 now, at the age where a striker can completely fall off any given season. Gomez himself is 34 and Emilio is 31. Relying on 3 over-30 players to lead you offensively is very risky, especially since the reserves at forward are somewhat lacking. Another question is keeper. Even when healthy, Louis Crayton is always an adventure between the pipes. But the biggest trouble spot is the back line. The USL callup Janicki will be relied on to start, most likely, and Canadian signing Dejan Jakovic will be relied on heavily since the team lacks a standout defender.

I went into this article with the idea that DC United would be back in the playoffs, where they feel they belong, this year. Trouble is, they've got far more areas to worry about than to be confident about. If everyone stays healthier than last year, yeah, they could still be competitive in the east. It'll be tough, though. I think that when summer comes, they'd be better off putting a serious effort into the Concacaf Champions League this time around. Maybe that'll be how they get the trophy that their fans crave and deserve, because I don't see them winning MLS.


Season Preview - San Jose Earthquakes

For obvious reasons, last year, the San Jose Earthquakes were of special interest to Sounders fans. As the expansion club in 2008, the Quakes were an example of what Seattle will go through this year. We can only hope that there will not be similarities in the points column.

As most expansion clubs do, the Quakes struggled. And I’ve written a lot about their struggles. The main point is that they had very little scoring options for much of the season. After picking up British winger Darren Huckerby, their attack was rejuvenated. (Perhaps just ‘juvinated’?) San Jose found more success toward the end of the season, getting themselves back into a tie for last place with Los Angeles while staying in the playoff hunt longer than most thought possible.

Apparently the Quakes are thinking this success will continue, because they made few changes to their roster. The only major ones were signing target forward Cam Weaver, who was a standout for the USL Sounders a few years ago and had most recently been playing in Norway, and the acquisition of former USA nat Bobby Convey. Arguably their most important move was re-signing keeper Joe Cannon, who had a stellar 2008. The rest of the moves were mostly effective-looking shoring up of squad depth. They did lose starters Francisco Lima and James Riley, the latter of whom is now one of Seattle’s best defenders.

Even without Riley, the defense – San Jose’s strength last year – still looks solid. Jason Hernandez remains one of the best one players nobody has heard of. The midfield is solid as well, with Convey, the ever-dangerous Huckerby and Ramiro Corrales. Cannon is a quality presence in goal. Forward is still the question. Arturo Alvarez might play up top, but that would probably relegate Jamaican Ryan Johnson to the bench, and he’s starter quality. On the other hand, Johnson and Weaver are both big banger-type players, and I’m not sure if they’ll work well together.

I’ll just say it right now – I think San Jose can make the playoffs. Not sure if they will, but the talent is there. The nucleus in defense and goal remains, which is what coach Frank Yallop wanted. His team construction is a multi-year process, and I think it’ll pay off this year. Adding Convey is a bit of a gamble – they want him to play attacking mid, which is not his natural position. If he gets his form back, expect San Jose to seriously compete for a spot in the postseason.


Season Preview - Toronto FC

Over the last two years, no club has garnered as much praise for their fans as Toronto FC. And rightfully so – they always sell out BMO Field, have rowdy and passionate fans, and support their team through wins and the much more common losses.

Over those two years, they haven’t really had a lot to cheer about. As an expansion club in 2007, they were flat out terrible, and were marginally better in 2008, but still last in the East. A high degree of roster turnover led to the team never really gelling. Toronto really didn’t have an area of strength on the pitch, and had weaknesses everywhere, particularly at forward. This past offseason they’ve continued to rework the roster, but the difference is the number of quality players that have joined the Reds.

First, obviously, is Canadian soccer legend Dwayne De Rosario. The attacking midfielder was picked up from Houston, delighting TFC fans. He’s getting old, but is still a dynamic presence on the field and has moments of brilliance matched by almost nobody in MLS. And he’s getting a chance to be the star for his hometown club. You think he’ll be energized this year?(DeRo is my favorite player in MLS, though, so I’m admittedly biased.)

Toronto made all sorts of other acquisitions. They traded for veteran Canadian defender Adrian Serioux and signed forward Pablo Vitti, a former member of the Argentina U-20 national team. They also had 3 picks in the SuperDraft, and acquired two of the very few college players who can contribute right away – forward O’Brien White and central midfielder Sam Cronin. All this, and they only lost two players who could even contribute somewhat, with one of them being Seattle’s new defender Tyrone Marshall.

There’s a lot of new talent on Toronto, and in some ways they look similar to how the Sounders’ roster is at the moment. Lots of midfield depth and attacking talent, what looks like a good combination at forward (Vitti and Chad Barrett), an old but still solid national team keeper (Greg Sutton, Canada), and a very thin defense. There’s a lot of ingredients there, but will they go together?

Defense is the main worry, as an injury to any one starter would create a huge talent drop-off. But the thing I’m most curious about is how De Rosario will work with Amado Guevara, who is Toronto’s current attacking midfielder and is pretty good in his own right. What type of formation will accommodate them both? Can they work together and still share the ball with the rest of the midfield? Hard to say. And they will probably still struggle to contend. But it’s clear that Toronto – just like Seattle – will at a minimum be a very entertaining team to watch.


Season Preview - Los Angeles Galaxy

If the Sounders were looking at a list of MLS clubs to emulate, the Los Angeles Galaxy would probably be right at the bottom. Which is exactly where they finished in MLS last year.

Embarrassingly, the MLS team with the most recognition worldwide was also the league's worst club, ending the season in a tie with San Jose on 33 points. And that was with David Beckham playing at mostly full strength and Landon Donovan playing with the strength of 3 men. Their heroics were not nearly enough to make up for an atrocious backline and the ineptitude of goalkeeper Steve Cronin, who lost playing time to the just as bad Josh Wicks. Wicks came from USL club Portland Timbers. If you’re relying on Portland to help fix your team, you know you’re crap.

The Galaxy are looking to put their multiple years of futility behind them. Coach Bruce Arena, a name familiar to any American soccer fan, is leading the renovations. And on paper they look much improved. Dema Kovalenko has been brought in to bring some brutality to the center of midfield; Todd Dunivant (left back) and Mike Magee (forward) are decent veteran options. Donovan Ricketts, Jamaican international goalkeeper, has signed on. The talismanic Donovan looks to be coming back to Los Angeles, fresh off a successful loan to Bayern Munich. Some good college picks have joined the mix, notably huge centerback Omar Gonzalez. Oh yeah, and that Beckham guy may or may not be coming back.

With so many changes, can the Galaxy actually rise up and compete this year? While they’ve suddenly become an experienced team, they’re not made up of washed-up veterans. Ok, maybe a couple. The core of their attack is all back, and the defense is almost completely new except for the lone decent defender they already had, Sean Franklin.

On paper, they look much improved. But that’s the key. On paper.

Arena’s coaching skill is well documented – he might be the best American soccer coach ever – but his last task was New York in 2006 and 2007, and he did nothing to improve that team. And he is notoriously egotistical… how well will he work with the star personalities of Donovan and (presumably) Beckham? Will Donovan even be around all season? Will the young defense be able to form a cohesive unit early on in the season? They didn’t look so hot in some of their preseason games… And will the new keeper Ricketts live up to expectations? They’re really banking on him to close the revolving door they’ve had at the keeper position.

These are, in my mind, the biggest questions facing a team that has plenty of them. And they have to answer a lot to get up into playoff contention in the West. I will say this with confidence, though – at a minimum, the Galaxy have improved enough to get off the bottom of the league. As for how much they’ve improved, we’ll have to wait and see.


The '09 Sounders vs. the '08 Earthquakes - an analysis

A common belief among Sounders fans is that our team is better prepared for MLS than previous expansion teams. A common belief among fans of various other MLS teams is that the Sounders will very much struggle this year, just like previous expansion teams. I fall into the former camp, and I’m going to defend it. I’ll look at how Seattle’s opening day lineup matches up against San Jose’s in 2008, compare the starters at each position, and quantify which team is stronger.

First, the lineups. The projected opening day lineup for Seattle and San Jose’s opening day lineup last year. (NOTE – for any eagle-eyed Quakes fans, yes, Shea Salinas did start the first game at forward, but he really wasn’t a striker so I put Glinton, who mostly started during the beginning of the year.)

San Jose: Joe Cannon, Jason Hernandez, Ryan Cochrane, Nick Garcia, James Riley, Ronnie O'Brien, Ramiro Corrales, Ned Grabavoy, Ivan Guerrero, Kei Kamara, Shea SalinasSeattle (projected): Kasey Keller, Nate Sturgis, Jhon Hurtado, Tyrone Marshall, James Riley, Sebastien Le Toux, Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Sanna Nyassi, Nate Jaqua, Fredy Montero

Keeper – Joe Cannon vs. Kasey Keller. To be honest this is a really tough one. Cannon was (and still is) one of the best keepers in MLS. Keller is the best American goalkeeper ever. But age and the fact that Keller hasn’t played competitively since last May probably make this a toss-up, though I'm sure Sounders fans will disagree. EVEN

Left back – Jason Hernandez vs. Nate Sturgis. Hernandez is one of the best young up and coming defenders you’ve never heard of, and was a real bright spot for the Quakes. Sturgis was a similar rising prospect a couple years ago, but until he proves that he’s more durable than a tower of Jenga blocks, he’s not at the same level. SAN JOSE

Center back – Tyrone Marshall vs. Nick Garcia. Both veterans on the downsides of their careers. Garcia wins because of being younger, more in his prime, and having a prime-r prime anyways. SAN JOSE

Center back – Ryan Cochrane vs. Jhon Hurtado. As Hurtado has yet to suit up for the Sounders, this is a bit tricky, but Cochrane just was never anything special. SEATTLE

Right back – James Riley vs. James Riley. Riley was a solid MLS player who won’t make any all-star teams, but is a reliable option in defense and a threat going forward. Of course, so is Riley. EVEN

Left wing – Ivan Guererro vs. Sebastien Le Toux. The two are actually very different styles of player – Guererro more defensive, Le Toux more offensive. I’m going to give this to Seba, but it’s close. SEATTLE

Center mid – Osvaldo Alonso vs. Ned Grabavoy. Alonso is young and unproven at the MLS level. But Ned Grabavoy has just never been very good. SEATTLE

Center mid – Brad Evans vs. Ramiro Corrales. Both are above average, yet somewhat unheralded players in the center of the park. This is basically a draw as well. EVEN

Right wing – Ronnie O’Brien vs. Sanna Nyassi. Sorry, Sounders fans. Nyassi may be cheaper and have a brighter future, but last year O’Brien was a huge part of San Jose’s attack and one of the only reasons they’d ever score goals at all. SAN JOSE

Forward - Gavin Glinton vs. Nate Jaqua. Once upon a time Glinton was a decent player. That time was not last year. This is no contest. SEATTLE

Forward - Kei Kamara vs. Fredy Montero. Hahahahahahaha SEATTLE

Totals: San Jose 3, Even 3, Seattle 5


This could be even more lopsided, really. If the Sounders come out of Argentina with a new left back, they could win that category, and when Freddy Ljungberg returns to play center-mid, that’ll gain another category. And when Pete Vagenas comes back from his injury... well, actually, that'll probably make us worse. Anyways, we’re quite a few steps ahead of where San Jose was last year. As I outlined a couple posts below, San Jose garnered just 10 points in their first 10 games. With a much better overall squad, Seattle should expect more success during the start of their inaugural season.


Sounders to sign Colombian defender - the final piece of the puzzle?

Back in January I wrote that three more major moves would be needed to make the Sounders a complete team. One at forward, two in defense. The forward slot was taken care of with Fredy Montero, which is seeming like more of a coup every day. One defensive hole was filled with Tyrone Marshall, who, while merely adequate in MLS, is still better than anything we had previously.

And now the Sounders have filled that second hole. According to Enlajugada, the Colombian soccer website that originally broke the Fredy Montero signing (months before announced in the states), John Kennedy Hurtado has signed with the club.

From the article: "El joven defensor central del registro del Deportivo Cali, John Kennedy Hurtado, continuar√° su ascendente carrera profesional en la 'Major League Soccer' de los Estados Unidos."
(My rough translation: "The young central defender registered to Deportivo Cali, John Kennedy Hurtado, will continue his ascending professional career in MLS in the United States." Sounds pretty clear that we've signed him, I think.)

Hurtado isn't the rising superstar that Montero is, but he was on trial with Milan and had plans to sign with Swiss club Grasshoppers before visa problems caused that to fall through. A natural center back, Hurtado comes from Montero's former club, Deportivo Cali. He is 5'11" but reportedly has fantastic speed. Could he be pushed out to outside defense, I wonder...?

Either way, this signing will bolster greatly what had been a questionable defense. It probably will be the last major international move the Sounders make before the season opens. Although he'll have to prove himself, Hurtado might just be the final piece Seattle has been missing to have a club that maybe - just maybe - could dream of contention in 2009.

Lowering Expectations

First 10 games of MLS expansion seasons, 2005-2008

San Jose 2008 - LLWLTLLWLW – 10 points from 10 games
Toronto FC 2007 – LLLLWWLTWL – 10 points
Chivas USA 2005 - LTLLLWLLLL – 4 points
Real Salt Lake 2005 - TLWLTLWWLL – 11 points

- None of these expansion teams had over a .500 record in the first 10 games (first 1/3) of the season.
- None of these teams won a single game until their third match.
- Over the first 5 games these teams accumulated 4, 3, 1 and 4 points respectively.

I think the numbers paint a pretty clear and indisputable picture. Teams entering MLS do not fare well at first. Each team was last in the league at the 1/3 point, except Real Salt Lake who had another expansion team in the league in Chivas USA. It's not a huge leap to assume that expansion clubs need time to adjust to MLS, to begin working as a team. Seattle will have the same problem. So if Seattle has just 10 points (which should be about what we expect, based on the above data) at the beginning of June, and looks hopelessly out of contention, it's not due to poor roster management or poor coaching. It's just the growing pains every expansion team has to overcome.


Meet the longshots

Confused by all these names that keep popping up in the Sounders practice reports? I'm here to help. Seattle has brought in many young players with hopes of impressing a coach and maybe, just maybe, playing their way onto the team. Almost all of these guys are names you've never heard of, so here's a brief summary of those players.

Jeff Clark – A forward from tiny Concordia College, he played in the NAIA against Sounder draft pick and blog friend Jared Karkas. For whatever it’s worth, he’s Concordia’s all time leader in points, goals and assists. Has shown reasonably well in camp, might have a shot at a developmental slot.

Ryan Pore – A 25 year old striker. Was last seen on the Kansas City Wizards, where he racked up a staggering 3 goals in 58 appearances. An actual quote from a KC fan – “How in the hell does this washout make this much money?” Wizards fans were happy to see him waived this offseason. Probably camp filler.

Lamar Neagle – A reasonably skilled forward from UNLV. Don’t see much of a chance for him to make the Sounders… right away. However, he is local, a Federal Way native. It’s quite possible that he could be signed by Seattle and loaned to the new pro team in Kitsap, or just play there anyways. Keep an eye on him.

Quavas Kirk – Left winger formerly from DC United. He entered the league at just 16, and while gifted with raw talent, saw his development stall. He is just 20, and could be one of those guys who just needs the right coach to click – or maybe not. Still, he has the highest upside out of anyone in this group. With Khano Smith probably being traded to New York, Kirk becomes intriguing. His age means he could potentially be on the developmental roster.

Ryan Caugherty – A Korean-American midfielder who has played in Denmark, Hungary, Romania and Sweden. Mostly in the second or third divisions. Also has played in USL-2 on a couple different stints. He has good size, but I’m thinking he’s a journeyman for a reason.

Emerald George – Midfielder from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Hands down the best name of the bunch. Has actually started for his national team on multiple occasions, but to be fair, they have a population of about 120k people. I like what I’ve heard of him, but his international status means he probably doesn’t have a prayer. Hope he does well though.

Fernando Screpis – Journeyman 29 year old Argentine central midfielder. I think he plays more of a d-mid. Has been all around Europe, most recently being cut by Scottish club Hearts. Can’t see how he makes the squad.

Mamadou Danso – A big (6’2”, 190) central defender, also from an NAIA school – Southern Polytechnic. He played forward for his school and was ranked highly in the nation in all offensive categories. However, defense is his more natural position. Was a sophomore last year. His nickname is ‘Futty’ for some reason. He could have some potential, maybe a chance at a developmental slot.

Kyle Schmid – A young defender. He’s Sigi Schmid’s son. I think that goes a ways towards explaining why he’s in camp.


Kicking it with Jared Karkas

Although in my mind the defense is the biggest question for the Sounders FC, Jared Karkas is set to change that. An attacking left back from Azusa Pacific University, Karkas was the Sounders' 3rd round draft selection, 31st overall. I was able to catch him on a relatively light training day and ask him a few questions, to hopefully help readers and Sounder fans get to know one of their talented new young team members.

(Karkas is in white in the photo. Credit to apu.edu.)

Ness: Was getting drafted in the 3rd round a surprise? Did you expect to be drafted at all?
Jared Karkas: Being drafted was a bit of a suprise. I was told I would just go to Seattle's training camp after the draft. I did not expect to be drafted at all. It's hard for NAIA players to get drafted. I feel very honored and blessed.

Ness: What's the most noticable difference between NAIA soccer and MLS training camp thus far?
JK: I would definitely say the speed of the game. In NAIA you seem to have more time to decide what you want to do but in MLS you have to be one step ahead or you won't last long. There are many talented players out there that seem to struggle when it comes to the pace of the higher levels of soccer.

Ness: The Sounders are a little light on defense... think you have a chance to contribute to the team this year?

JK: To be honest I don't think the Sounders are light on defense at all. We have alot of talented defenders in camp right now so its just a matter of time to see who the coaching staff keeps. I know if the Sounders sign me I will contribute to the team whether its playing or not playing. I am going to work as hard as I possibly can to help prepare the team.

Ness: For those that don't know you, what would you say are your specialties, the parts of your game that stand out?
JK: I'd have to say my crosses. I had many many assists in the NAIA from serving crosses in. I would also say my pace going forward with the ball. If I get into a good enough position up the field with the ball alot of the times I created trouble and found opportunities for my team. Ifjust always have been that fortunate.

Ness: Ever been to Seattle? Can you imagine playing in front of 25,000 fans?
JK: I haven't been to Seattle since I was about 12. I think it's beautiful up there. I dont think they could have chosen a better expansion area then Seattle. When I was a kid I used to imagine playing infront of thousands of fans, but who knows... It could be a little overwhelming at first.

Ness: Finally the all-important question... are you a fan of the bright green on all the gear?

JK: (Laughs) I actually am a fan of the bright green. It's different and I like it. Teams in the league will fear the bright green eventually.

Big ups to Jared for chatting with me. I certainly hope he can contribute to the Sounders in 2009.


Where's the defense?

In 2008 the Sounders were in the USL and were unquestionably a very average team. Their record of 10 wins, 10 losses and 10 ties is pretty damning proof. Their strength was on offense, specifically with Sebastian Le Toux. However, as a team they were in the bottom half of almost every category defensively. And their defensive performance would have been much worse had it not been for Chris Eylander, who deservedly earned his spot on the Sounders FC. The local keeper turned in a season that was nothing short of heroic - 119 saves, the runaway league leader. But to still allow so many goals (36 in 30 games) means that the back line had some serious issues in USL.

Which makes it all the more strange that they are seemingly being counted on to play a major part on the Sounders FC in the much more difficult MLS.

That might be overstating things, but the defense is a huge question right now, and the USL Sounders should not be the answer. Taylor Graham, Danny Jackson and Zack Scott are the three former Sounders who are all getting consideration, with Graham having actually signed a contract. Graham was the most solid of the bunch in USL, but he's had two equally unsuccessful stints in MLS. (In fact, his name is a joke among fans of one of his former teams.) Jackson has played a grand total of 1 game in MLS and is on the downside of his career. And while I like Scott, he was noticably inconsistant even in USL. To think he can adequately make the jump up a league is a bit of an enormous stretch.

Although there are of course other defenders in camp, they only improve the picture marginally. James Riley is the only sure-fire starter of the bunch. Tyson Wahl has started in MLS at Kansas City, but only for 1 year and that was only after regular starter Nick Garcia left. Aside from that, there's Patrick Ianni, a 3rd to 4th string player with the Dynamo, and Nate Sturgis, who's been so hurt that he's missed 70% of the last two seasons. And then there are the college draft picks, but if you're counting on a second and/or third round draft pick to contribute, you're in trouble.


That's probably our back four as of right now. That's not a good defense. That's downright Galaxyesque. I might as well write


At least one more major signing is necessary for this team to be anything close to decent. A center back would be fantastic, or even an outside back to let Wahl play in the middle, his more natural position. And it lets somebody, Sturgis probably, come off of the bench and give us more quality depth. Everything looks a whole lot rosier if we get one more defensive signing. Let's make it happen.


Sounders vs. Mariners - The battle for summer

The Sounders will be competing with a local team for much of the 2009 season. Both the Seattle Sounders of MLS and the Seattle Mariners of MLB will be playing through spring, summer and into fall. The schedule overlaps almost perfectly. And, of course, the two teams play next door to each other. Each will be fighting for the increasingly scarce entertainment dollars of the average Seattle citizen. The Mariners have been the regions most popular franchise for years, but incredibly, the Sounders have a very good chance at drawing more fans per game in 2009. Seriously.

How do I arrive at this seemingly outlandish conclusion? From the Sounders side, it's simple. With Qwest having a proposed MLS capacity of 24,500, and over 19,000 season tickets sold, it seems pretty likely that the club will sell out every game. If necessary, they might even open up some more seats (the Hawks Nest, to be specific), bumping the capacity to around 27,000. For this exercise, I'll play it safe and give the Sounders an even 25k, not counting friendly matches.

The Mariners, of course, have been trending in the wrong direction as of late. With last season being an abysmal failure by any measure, the attendence dropped to mirror that. For the first time since the magical 1995 season, the team drew less than 30k people - just over 28.5k, to be exact. They dropped by five thousand fans in one season. Now, unsurprisingly, changes happened for the M's over the offseason, including a new general manager who isn't a complete moron. And in the long term the club looks to be on the right track. But they aren't going to win this season, and a lot of fair weather fans have bailed on the club. The casual fan doesn't want to see a team that loses every year. And with the economy being in the toilet, another drop of a few thousand fans per game seems likely, putting the Mariners below the Sounders.

Of course this doesn't mean the support for the teams will be equal. That would be an insane suggestion. The MLB season has more than 5 times as many games, giving the M's a huge advantage in total attendence, and baseball (unlike soccer) draws historically well in Seattle. But for the Sounders to draw more fans per game would be a major victory, albeit largely a symbolic one. It would be a first in MLS history. And yet another sign that the club is primed for success.


5 games to look forward to

The MLS schedule for 2009 was released today, giving us the dates and times of every single Sounders game in the inaugural season. There are 30 to pick from, but here’s my take on the five most exciting SSFC matches to look forward to. These dates should be circled on your calendar, preferably in suitable shades of blue or green.

5. Los Angeles at Seattle, May 10. Assuming that David Beckham does suit up for the Galaxy in the coming season, this match will bring a wave of media attention. Assuming that the Sounders’ Freddy Ljungberg has functional legs this season, it will be a matchup between two legitimate European stars, the first of its kind in MLS. Oh, and thanks to the mind of Bruce Arena, the Galaxy might actually be good this season. Hold on to your tickets for this one.

4. Seattle at Columbus, October 3. Not only will this be possibly the hardest match of the season, an away game at the defending champions, but it marks the return to Columbus for former Crew coach/current Sounders coach Sigi Schmid. There was some bad blood over how that transaction was handled, making this match all the more intriguing. The rowdy Crew fans will surely be in full voice.

3. Seattle at San Jose, June 13. In truth, all three Quakes – Sounders clashes will be great games. The teams are relatively geographically close, and have tons of history from the NASL in the 70’s and 80’s. In fact, there has been a trophy created for the winner of this series, aptly named the Heritage Cup. This game will likely determine the winner. Expect to see a big group of Sounders supporters traveling south, creating a fantastic atmosphere.

2. Dallas at Seattle, October 24. The last game of the season is a home one for Seattle, and could have massive playoff implications for one or both of these teams. Plus FC Dallas is a team Seattle has some beef with – they knocked out the USL Sounders in the semis of the ’06 US Open Cup. Sounders supporters are still mad that the match contained less-than-sportsmanlike conduct from several FCD players. I’m looking at you, keeper Dario Sala. And you look like a vampire.

1. New York at Seattle, March 19. Sorry, it’s just too easy. Taking on an MLS Cup finalist on national TV in the first game in franchise history? Very, very hard to top that.

(Except, of course, in the unlikely event of playoffs in ’09. But never say never!)


A team of the world

There could be a lot of different nationalities represented on the Sounders FC this coming season. Behold:

Fredy Montero (Columbia)
Osvaldo Alonso (Cuba)
Khano Smith (Bermuda)
Jarrod Smith (New Zealand)
Sebastien Le Toux (France)
Sanna Nyassi (The Gambia)
Steve Zakuani (Congo and U.K)
Freddie Ljungberg (Sweden)

If you want to go even further, Hugo Alcarez-Cuellar, a USL Sounders midfielder, is from Mexico, and recent signee Taylor Graham has played for the Puerto Rican national team (despite his being completely American).

That's a total of four different languages, five different continents and a bunch of completely different styels of soccer. The official website says 'the Seattle Sounders FC will be comprised from the top talent around the world'. While they might be stretching the term 'top talent' a little bit, they've certainly covered almost all parts of the globe.


Chelsea coming, Montero’s here, and more

On the first day in Sounders FC history (well, the first practice, that is) I had to write something, but so much has happened over the last 24 hours you will get it in bullet-point format.

- England superclub Chelsea FC are coming to Seattle to play in a friendly! No, really. The tentative date is July 18, and apparently all Sounders season ticket holders already have tickets, with this being one of the 3 bonus games.

- You’ll think I’m kidding, but I’ve heard quite a few whispers about another superclub setting up a Seattle showdown. Try Barcelona.

- USL defender Taylor Graham has signed with the Sounders FC. He’s kicked around MLS a little bit before, and might be able to find a spot as a backup central defender.

- Freddy Montero was in Seattle for practice! The star Columbian forward hasn’t worked out a deal with Seattle yet, and all sorts of rumors are flying around about whether he is going to play in Spain or stay stateside. The international transfer window closes at the end of the month, so we’ll know about his future in 10 days or so.

- In addition to Montero, there is at least one more international signing in the works. Could it be one of the Aussies I’ve noted in the past, Diego Walsh or Tarek Elrich? Their season ends down under on Sunday…

- Last but not least, there is an MLS team in Seattle. The wait is officially over.


Seattle's 2009 draft class

Akron’s 20 year old wunderkind Steve Zakuani was the first overall pick and first college player selected in Sounders history. The striker drew tremendous praise from many at the draft, including (not surprisingly) Adrian Hanauer. The Sounders general manager said of his new forward, “He’s got all the tools, a great pedigree, grew up in the Arsenal youth system, obviously had a very good college career and we think has the potential to be very explosive and a very exciting player.” Zakuani also is a Generation Adidas player, and his salary will not count against the meager MLS cap. Since he is rumored to be making upwards of 150k a year, a lot for any MLS player, this is hugely important for Seattle, as it allows them to use that money on other players.

The other three players are all seniors. Evan Brown was chosen in the second round. He is a right back out of soccer powerhouse Wake Forest who is solid defensively, but still excels at getting forward and joining in the attack. He has drawn comparisons to Frankie Hejduk, the prototypical MLS defender who can play a role on offense as well.

Jared Karkas, the third round selection, is a left back out of little Azusa Pacific University. A left footed player, he is otherwise similar in skill and style to Brown, although his play came against much easier opposition. With only 5 total defenders on the Sounders roster, both Karkas and Brown figure to be in competition for one of the 20 roster spots.

The fourth round selection was Harvard’s Michael Fucito. He was talked about little leading up to the draft. Another left footed player, Fucito can line up either in the midfield or at forward. Although his Harvard pedigree is probably indicative of his smarts, he likely will end up as one of the Sounders’ four Developmental Roster players.


MLS SuperDuperDraft 2k9 predictions!

We're inside 24 hours to go, with the 2009 SuperDuperDraft beginning at 11 am PT and the Sounders holding the top overall pick. There has been massive speculation about the team's choice, whether to use it or trade it, whether to go for offense or defense. After consulting all the soccer world's top sources for college knowledge, I've come to some fearless conclusions about what exactly will take place tomorrow.

- The Colorado Rapids will, at some point, do something hilariously stupid and/or embarrassing.
- The talking heads on the ESPN broadcast will mispronounce a player's name.
- David Beckham will be discussed.
- Unless Mo Johnston is gagged, bound and shoved in a closet somewhere, Toronto FC will make at least one trade.
- The Sounders will pick a little-known player in the 3rd or 4th round and, after looking him up on Wikipedia/Youtube, you will convince yourself that this player has potential.
- The words 'tremendous upside' will be spoken.
- David Beckham will be discussed some more.
- You will wish Eric Wynalda was on the broadcast.
- You will be extremely thankful Marcelo Balboa is not on the broadcast.
- You will spend at least an hour refreshing your computer, checking on the next Sounders pick, during the second and third rounds.
- The Sounders will select.... Omar Gonzalez!
- Or Steve Zakuani.
- Or Sam Cronin.
- Or trade the pick.
- You will wish that March 19 was tomorrow.


MLS Seattle is on ESPN!

In the shameless self promotion department, I recently conducted an interview with Marcus Tracy, whom you might remember from articles such as this. The top college player in the country, Wake Forest's star senior striker reportedly has signed a contract with Danish champions Aalborg. (He asked me not to go into detail about his future plans, aside from saying that he 'is most likely exploring options in Europe.) Here's a bit from the interview:

ESPNsoccernet [me!]: What sort of advice did you hear about entering the MLS draft versus jumping to play in Europe? What were the main factors that went into deciding where you want to play?

MT: Jumping to Europe [and any professional level in general] is certainly a challenge, and the most important thing is that you don't overshoot and go for the mega-contract right off the bat. You need to go somewhere where you can evolve in soccer and in life, because playing abroad is much different than college and/or MLS. It is also important that you have a realistic chance of playing regularly at your new club because game experience cannot be substituted. I've also been told that the life of a professional is much different than anything I've ever experienced thus far. The day-to-day competition and rigors of it are demanding and stressful and it takes a strong mind to grind through it all.

Go here to read the rest. It's good stuff, honest - Tracy's a very gracious and insightful guy. I wish him all the best for his future, even if it won't be in Seattle.


3 steps to making the Sounders a serious contender in MLS

I've been down on the playoff chances of the Sounders. I've said that the roster needs significant change, and I stand by that. But if said change happens, Seattle could have a postseason contender after all.
(Step zero, of course, is signing defender Jeff Parke and keeping him from trotting off to Europe. If that doesn't happen, no playoffs. Period. This should be priority numero uno for the organization right now.)

What do we have to work with? Well, with Schmid, Hanauer and Henderson, some of the best minds in the American soccer business, for starters. More importantly, there's quite a bit of cash left. Taking the 15 players we have signed, I slightly increased most of their salaries and decreased a few (here's looking at you, Vagenas). I doubled Parke's contract and assumed he signs here, and gave Keller 300k. All told, I estimate we've used about 1.6 million of a 2.3 mil cap. And with a bunch of allocation money remaining, probably in the neighborhood of 400k, the Sounders are in a good position to spend.

The latest sexy hot draft rumor has us taking Akron's Steve Zakuakuani, a striker. He's a guy in the Patrick Nyarko mold, and as such wouldn't be more than a backup next season. He also wouldn't count against the cap. We should add one more former USL Sounder to the team - and bench - leaving 3 roster spots left to make significant upgrades.

1. Central defense. Parke is good, Wahl is ok. But we want better than ok, right?

Solution - sign Roy Miller. This one appears to be nearly done. Miller is a big 24 year old Costa Rican who has a comparable game to Cory Gibbs. A defensive pairing of Parke and Miller would be amazing. Probably the best in the Western Conference.

Cost - since he's likely coming on a loan, I'd guess a relatively reasonable 200k.

2. Striker. Nate Jaqua is a very good target guy, but he can't create and do it all on his own. We don't have the personel to play a Columbus-style 4-5-1 very well, so another man up top is necessary.

Solution - sign Freddy Montero. Haven't we been over this already? The young Columbian has long been rumored to have had his rights purchased by the Sounders.

Cost - whatever it is, there would be allocations used. I'll go with about 200k, with maybe 125k in allocation money as well.

3. Outside back. Unless we're planning on playing someone out of his best position, we only have one at the moment - James Riley. And do you really want to count on Nate Sturgis's body not completely imploding? There's no easy answer for this one, but I've got a creative one...

Solution - sign Tarek Elrich! Who? He's a 21 year old Aussie currently playing for his home country's Newcastle Jets. A member of his U-23 team, he's the best player on a team going nowhere. He's got speed in bunches, vision, and loves to get forward and spur the attack. Exactly the type of outside back Sigi loves. When the Australian season ends in February, he will probably be looking for better opportunities.

Cost - not much. The A-League is even cheaper than MLS, and Elrich could probably be had for around 125k.

---Jaqua -- Montero --
-------Ljungberg -----
KSmith Evans Le Toux
Riley Miller Parke Elrich

This lineup, combined with the depth the Sounders would have, would be a top-4 club in MLS. No question. The resources are there to make Seattle a contender. The only question is whether the Sounders are willing to give it a try.


New year, new teams

While the Sounders are joining MLS in 2009, they will leave Seattle without an entry in the minor-leagues of USL. Or so we thought. Recently the USL website has listed a mysterious 'Seattle' club under the new PDL clubs for 2009. (PDL is about the third division of USL, and the fourth tier of American soccer.)

I have very good reason to believe that we will be seeing this team announced soon, likely within the next week. I am also fairly certain that this team will be affiliated with the Sounders FC in some way, probably as their U-23 team. I do not know that last part for a fact, but it seems likely. A U-23 team would be a great step forward in the player development department. Such a team would probably play an 8 to 10 game season at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila.

Whether this mystery team is essentially a Sounders youth squad or not, it will mean more soccer in Seattle, and that can only be good. It's a nice way to start off what should be a fabulous 2009.