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Friday, February 20, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: March 15, 6:54 PM UK
Seattle promises offensive fireworks in debut season

Ives Galarcep, ESPNsoccernet

Editor's note: This is the ninth of 15 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season. Kansas City will be previewed on Thursday.

2008 record and finish: Expansion team

Key additions: M Freddie Ljungberg, GK Kasey Keller, F Fredy Montero, F Nate Jaqua, M Sebastian LeToux, M Brad Evans, F/M Steve Zakuani.

Three questions facing this team:

1. Will the defense be good enough?

There is no question that Sigi Schmid has more attacking options than almost any previous MLS expansion team, but it can certainly be argued that this approach has left Seattle a bit thin in the back.

The lack of a true lock-down central defender is a cause for concern, especially when the existing group of center backs consists of aging vets and inexperienced (in MLS) defenders. Tyrone Marshall is adequate, but did show a decline with Toronto this past season. He is 34 and was a member of Schmid's 2002 MLS Cup-winning L.A. Galaxy team, but Marshall will need to turn back the clock if Seattle's defense is going to avoid being one of the worst in MLS.

Something else Schmid will be banking on is his own ability to cultivate some of the young defensive talent on the roster. In Tyson Wahl, Nathan Sturgis and Patrick Ianni, he has three players who have at one time or another been highly-regarded in league circles. Wahl showed great promise with KC, Sturgis has always had the talent but has never been able to stay healthy, while Ianni simply struggled badly in the past year in Houston. Ianni in particular has failed to deliver on the promise he showed when he played for Schmid's U.S. U-20 national team in 2005.

MLS Primetime
March 19
Seattle vs. New York
Qwest Field, Seattle
9 p.m. ET, (ESPN2)

Then there is John Kennedy Hurtado, a Colombian defender who signed this past week. He is athletic and aggressive, and was impressive enough to earn a look from AC Milan.

2. What will Freddie Ljungberg bring to the table?

When the Sounders made Ljungberg their first Designated Player, they also made him the first DP signing for an expansion team, a distinction that brings added weight to it because Ljungberg is being expected to help carry a franchise.

Can he do it? Ljungberg has the looks to lead a marketing campaign, but concerns about his ability to stay healthy, as well as about his level of play at this point in his career, still linger. When healthy, Ljungberg should still be able to terrorize MLS defenses with his speed and skill, but the physical style of play in MLS will take its toll on a player who has had his share of injuries in recent years.

Ljungberg isn't the only veteran with some question marks about what he will bring. Kasey Keller will have gone 10 months since his last professional match when he stands in the net for the season opener against New York. When we last saw Keller, he was doing his part to help Fulham avoid relegation in the spring of 2008. He looked strong and sharp and better than he did when we saw him struggling in the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup for the United States. Can he, at 39, still play at an elite level? As the highest-paid goalkeeper in MLS, Keller will need to. If he doesn't, and he struggles to shake the rust off, we could see Chris Eylander in goal sooner rather than later.

If Ljungberg and Keller deliver top-notch performances, Seattle will go a long way toward challenging for a Western Conference playoff spot in year one. If injuries and/or poor form mar their seasons, the Sounders could be in for your typical disappointing expansion season.

3. How will the USL arrivals fair in MLS?

Sebastian LeToux, Osvaldo Alonso and Taylor Graham were three of the best players in the USL First Division this past year, but all three will need to step up their game if they will have similar impacts in MLS.

LeToux was arguably the best player in the USL the past two years and his creativity, tenacity and nose for goal should help him succeed in the fast and physical MLS. That said, he will go from having been the focal point of the USL Sounders attack to a secondary option in the MLS Sounders attack as Montero, Jaqua, Ljungberg and Evans spearhead the attack.

Alonso spent one year in the USL first division and quickly established himself as a dominant defensive midfielder. Schmid's emphasis on attacking soccer depends heavily on his defensive midfield's ability to cover and protect the back four. If Alonso can do that, and beat out veteran midfielder Peter Vagenas for the role, the Sounders' defense will have that much an easier time coming together.

Graham will also have something to prove this year. After struggling to make his mark in his first go-round in MLS with Kansas City and New York, Graham returned to the USL-1 Sounders and dominated with his size, aggressiveness and ability to read the game. Lateral quickness has always been an issue for him, though, and he will have some stiff competition for playing time from Tyrone Marshall, Wahl and John Kennedy Hurtado. However, Graham's chances of becoming a steady contributor took a hit this week after it was revealed that he suffered a broken bone in his foot.

Biggest X-factor: Fredy Montero

While Ljungberg's signing drew the most national and international headlines, you could argue that the signing of Montero was even more significant. Why? Well, it isn't every day that MLS signs a top South American prospect when he is just entering his prime.

Montero is a goal-scoring machine, the type of go-to forward every team needs to be a legitimate threat and he's only 21. With the wealth of attacking tools around him, Montero should flourish.

There is one word of warning about Montero and it is the fact success in the Colombian league has never meant an automatic carryover of that success into MLS. Take former MetroStar Sergio Galvan Rey. When he arrived in New York in 2004, he came straight from having led the Colombian league in scoring. After two disappointing seasons with the MetroStars, Galvan Rey went back to Colombia, where he resumed his goal-scoring ways. This isn't to suggest that Montero is similar to Galvan Rey, but to point out that it is tougher to score goals in MLS than it is to score goals in Colombia, which should temper expectations of Montero's impact just a bit.

All that aside, Montero is a special talent. Skillful with his feet and dangerous in the air, Montero has a keen nose for goal and should make players such as Nate Jaqua, Steve Zakuani and Brad Evans better around him. He has enjoyed a stellar preseason and there is reason to believe Montero could notch 12-15 goals in 2009.

One player who could wind up having just as big an impact as Montero is fellow Colombian and former Deportivo Cali teammate John Kennedy Hurtado. While Seattle boasts a stable of defenders with MLS experience, Hurtado is the Sounders' most likely candidate to emerge as a shutdown defender in 2009. He has the combination of physical and technical tools to hold down a starting spot and excel.

Breakout player to watch: Steve Zakuani

There wasn't a more exciting player in college soccer in 2008 than the super-fast and highly-skilled Zakuani, who has impressed in preseason enough to challenge for a starting role on the left flank.

A left-footed speedster who can dribble past defenders as well as deliver an incisive pass, Zakuani figured to be brought along slowly considering the number of quality attackers on the roster, but he has enjoyed such a strong preseason that a starting role isn't out of the question for the one-time Arsenal youth product.

John Harkes' Take:
"Well Sigi Schmid, he's a very good coach, one of the best in the league. He knows he's got his work cut out for him, but he knew that going in. I think the one bonus that he has is that he selected some very good players in the expansion draft. The only negative to that is that he knows that it takes maybe 15 or 16 strong players to really have a chance to win games. San Jose learned that last year under Frank Yallop. It can't just be the starting 11 that makes a difference. One of the big bonuses that they do have is Kasey Keller. And not only is he going to bring his experience as a goalkeeper and what he's done, but he's also probably going to be like an assistant coach on the side. He'll be a good leader in the dressing room and bring players together. They've got a lot of cap space, so they should be able to add more players even in the next 4-5 weeks. They've got some good young veterans in there and with Zakuani ... he shows flair. It's just whether or not they can defend and keep clean sheets, which is important. That wins you championships and wins you games. "

Outlook

Boasting an impressive array of attacking talent, a deeper roster than any expansion team in recent memory, a championship head coach and a city eager to see its new soccer team, Seattle has all the pieces in place for a special first season.

It won't come easy. Expansion teams always struggle out of the gate (with even the MLS Cup champion Chicago Fire of 1998 struggling badly in its first two months). The key will be working through those struggles and developing a starting lineup capable of competing on a weekly basis. Schmid has the attacking weapons to score goals, but he must now build a defense capable of making those goals stand up. The Sounders don't need a stingy defense to win games, just an adequate one.

The task falls to Schmid to build a winner with his third straight MLS club. He has options at forward, as well as a wealth of options in midfield, meaning Schmid will boast the unique luxury of having a deep expansion roster to work with. He will need it because expectations are high for the first-year team and simply being competitive won't do for a club that has spent millions on its roster and boasts more than 20,000 season-ticket holders.

So what should we expect from these MLS newcomers? In the worst case scenario, the defense proves inadequate, Ljungberg stays injured, Keller fails to shake off the rust and the Sounders join the pile of expansion teams that couldn't make the playoffs in year one.

And the best case scenario? A playoff berth is entirely within the realm of possibility in the weak Western Conference, and if top players such as Ljungberg, Montero, Keller and Zakuani meet expectations, then the Sounders have a good chance of posting a winning record and notching high seed in the West playoffs.

The Sounders are likely to fall in between those two extremes, but with the talent on the roster and Schmid at the helm, Seattle looks like a team that will be fun to watch and competitive from the start.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.




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