Sellout crowd ready to embrace Seattle's debut
Major League Soccer makes its debut in the Pacific Northwest this week as the Seattle Sounders become the newest expansion team to join the rapidly expanding league. With more than 20,000 season tickets already sold, and the ESPN Game of the Week season opener against the New York Red Bulls on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2) already a sellout (32,400 fans expected), Seattle has embraced its newest sports team.
As far as first-year teams go, the Sounders are as stacked a team as you will find. Led by two-time MLS Cup winning head coach Sigi Schmid, and standouts such as Colombian striker Fredy Montero, Swedish star Freddie Ljungberg and American goalkeeper Kasey Keller, the Sounders will head into their first season with enough talent to seriously contend for a playoff spot in Year 1.
Standing in the way of Seattle's chances for a fast start are the Red Bulls, who will take the field for the first time since losing in the MLS Cup final in November to the Columbus Crew, who at the time were coached by Schmid. As different a team as Schmid will have this time around, the 2009 Red Bulls are also a transformed team from the MLS Cup finalist squad. Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio spent the offseason revamping his roster and the result is a deep team that could wind up back in the final.
Featuring two talented teams boasting plenty of international talent, and two of the best coaches in MLS, the Seattle-New York season-opener should provide an exciting start to Major League Soccer's 14th season.
Five story lines to follow
1. Seattle's inaugural season in MLS begins
Not since the league launched in 1996 has there been as much buzz surrounding the arrival of a new soccer team. The city has reason to be excited. Schmid has done a good job of building a roster capable of not only contending for the playoffs, but also capable of playing entertaining soccer.
Expansion teams don't generally do well in their first seasons in MLS, and early-season struggles are almost a guarantee, but the excitement expected to be generated by sellout crowds at Qwest Field should help provide a boost for a Sounders team that will benefit from playing in the weaker Western Conference. That boost should be on display Thursday night.
New York at Seattle
Qwest Field, Seattle
9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
The significance of the match goes well beyond Seattle. With more MLS expansion on the horizon, and the Pacific Northwest looking like a good bet to fill both of the 2011 expansion slots with Vancouver and Portland, the Sounders' opening match could signal a new age for soccer in the Northwest.
2. Revamped Red Bulls look to make way back to MLS Cup
Most teams that reach the MLS Cup final wouldn't be looking to overhaul their roster, but the New York Red Bulls did just that after following up a disappointing regular season with a dream playoff run. Osorio made some trades and scoured the international market for upgrades and came up with some gems.
Among the new faces in the Red Bulls fold are MLS veterans Mike Petke, Khano Smith and Dominic Oduro, with international players Albert Celades and Carlos Johnson also in the mix. The bigger impact may actually come from a trio of players who joined the Red Bulls in the second half of 2008. Jorge Rojas, Macoumba Kandji and Matt Mbuta failed to have much of an impact last season, but have all looked sharp in preseason and look poised to play key roles.
Just how many of the newcomers will be available Thursday remains to be seen. Smith is suspended and Celades and Johnson may not have their international clearance to play yet, which means the Red Bulls may actually field a lineup including as many as seven starters from the 2008 MLS Cup final.
3. Schmid begins life with third MLS team
The only man to ever lead two MLS teams to championships is now with his third club and will be looking to bring the city of Seattle its first professional sports title since the Supersonics won the NBA title in 1979. Schmid is off to a fast start, adding a solid group of veterans to go along with a talented stable of newcomers such as Montero and Steve Zakuani.
Based on how the roster has been constructed, Schmid will be fielding a very attack-minded team, but as good as the offensive options are for the Sounders, the defense will take some more time to put together. Schmid will be banking on veteran Tyrone Marshall to anchor the back line (Marshall was a starter for Schmid on the 2002 MLS Cup champion L.A. Galaxy). As important as veterans like Marshall and Keller are to success in 2009, the Sounders' future title hopes rest on the development of players such as Sebastien Le Toux, Montero, Zakuani, Brad Evans and Tyson Wahl.
Perhaps it is fitting that Schmid's first opponent as Seattle head coach is the same team he faced in his final match with the Crew. You can rest assured that Osorio and the Red Bulls will be looking for some measure of revenge after last year's 3-1 MLS Cup loss. Win or lose, Seattle fans should be reminded that both times Schmid's teams won MLS Cup titles, they did so in Schmid's third year with the team.
4. The battle of the Colombian strikers
Montero and Juan Pablo Angel represent two generations of Colombian standouts and their matchup should be a fun one to watch as Montero looks to prove that he deserves to be mentioned in the same category as the former Aston Villa and River Plate star.
Montero arrives in MLS after leading the Colombian league in scoring. He is one of South America's most promising young players and his preseason success (nine goals) would suggest that his transition to MLS should be a smooth one. Seattle is banking on Montero being among the league leaders in goals and will need him to be in order to make a serious push for the playoffs.
Angel is one of the best players, if not the best, in MLS and he is poised for a monster year after the additions made to the Red Bulls' attack. He had an MVP-caliber season in Year 1, then helped lead the Red Bulls to the MLS Cup final in Year 2. Angel will now be looking to help his team capture the big trophy this year.
5. International flavor fills opener
Montero and Angel aren't the only foreign players on display in the season opener. The Red Bulls and Sounders have two of the better collections of foreign talent in the league and they should make the first MLS match in Seattle a memorable one.
Pick a continent and chances are it is represented. Sounders forward and former USL player of the year Le Toux represents Europe, as does English rookie Zakuani and Sweden's Ljungberg (who has an outside chance of playing after recovering from surgery). Kanji (Senegal), Mbuta (Cameroon) and Seattle winger Sanna Nyassi (Gambia) are representing Africa. South America will be represented by Angel, Montero, Sounders Colombian defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Red Bulls Venezuelan playmaker Rojas. Throw in Red Bulls defender and New Zealand international Andrew Boyens, and Thursday's participants leave the globe well covered.
Five players to watch
1. Fredy Montero
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A dynamic forward who has great technical ability to go with good aerial strength, Montero will be a handful for a Red Bulls back line that has undergone an offseason makeover. The likely center back tandem of Mike Petke and Kevin Goldthwaite could have trouble dealing with Montero's shiftiness, as well as his vision, which should help set up strike partner Nate Jaqua for a few chances.
2. Juan Pablo Angel
When healthy, Angel is as close to unstoppable as there is in MLS, and he heads into the season opener healthy and ready to take full advantage of a revamped Red Bulls attack. Whether it's Marshall, Hurtado or Tyson Wahl, whoever Schmid puts on Angel will be in for a long night, especially if Rojas is playing as well as he played this preseason.
3. Kasey Keller
The legendary American goalkeeper will be playing his first professional match on home soil after first embarking on a career in Europe some two decades ago. Keller has not played first-team soccer for almost a full year, but the time off may do wonders for the 39-year-old Washington native. It should be noted that just a year ago, Keller played a key role in helping Fulham avoid relegation from the English Premier League, meaning that he should be able to step in and be one of the league's best goalkeepers.
4. Jorge Rojas
The former Venezuelan national team captain endured a tough first season in MLS as he admitted to not being ready for the fast and physical style of play. With a full preseason under his belt, Rojas has shown the skill and vision that led the Red Bulls to sign him in the first place. His pinpoint passing and creativity will create problems for Seattle unless Cuban midfielder Osvaldo Alonso can do a good job of containing him.
5. Sebastien Le Toux
A speedy threat as a forward and a winger, Le Toux will likely be deployed on the right flank in the opener. Le Toux has a relentless motor and is a good finisher who is sure to cause problems for whoever the Red Bulls trot out at left back (likely Goldthwaite).
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.