TUKWILA, Wash. (AP)
The Seattle Sounders have big expectations for the upcoming season.
The goal is reaching the MLS Cup final for the first time in franchise history.
To try to accomplish that goal, a year after falling a game short in the Western Conference final against Los Angeles, the Sounders are going into Saturday night's season opener against the visiting Montreal Impact with a roster that is still in flux after an offseason that's already had significant changes.
Gone is striker Fredy Montero, on loan to Millonarios in Colombia. Gone is defensive stalwart Jeff Parke, traded to Philadelphia.
Likely gone will be midfielder and designated player Christian Tiffert, the result of Seattle seeking to add Nigerian forward Obafemi Martins.
The result is that Seattle may not be a completely settled team against Montreal, but it's the outcome later in the year that matters most to the Sounders, who went 15-8-11 in 2012.
"Our big goal is MLS Cup and so we were willing to sacrifice a little bit of the front end to make sure we had things sorted come the summer as we head into the playoff hunt and hopefully tracking down an MLS Cup," general manager Adrian Hanauer said.
Following the deepest postseason run in the franchise's short history, the Sounders should again be among the elite of the loaded Western Conference.
They have a star up front with Eddie Johnson, a wall in the back with goalkeeper Michael Gspurning and one of the most talented midfields in the league with Osvaldo Alonso, Mauro Rosales, Brad Evans, Steve Zakuani and newly acquired designated player Shalrie Joseph.
Yet there remain just enough questions about the Sounders - namely who will pair with Johnson, and along the defensive back line - to keep them from being an overwhelming favorite going into the season.
But anything less than a deep run in the MLS playoffs - and likely a title game appearance - will be a disappointment.
"There is drive within us more than the expectations from outside, but we also want to reward our fans, reward our club for what they've done for us," Evans said.
With Montero gone, all of the attention up front will be on Johnson, coming off a season in which he led Seattle with 14 goals and earned his way into a call-up for the U.S. national team.
"Does Eddie have the potential to score 20 goals? Yes he does. Is it going to happen? I'm not sure," coach Sigi Schmid said. "What's most important for us is that we score goals to win. If it's a situation where Eddie gets 20 assists instead of 20 goals, I probably wouldn't argue with that. He needs to be involved in our goal-scoring opportunities."
Montreal is coming off a 12-16-6 season, posting an MLS record for wins by an expansion team. The Impact head into their second season after making relatively few changes to the team, except at the top.
They replaced overachieving coach Jesse Marsch, who left by mutual decision, with Marco Schallibaum, a veteran who has coached nearly 10 years with five clubs in the Swiss league and spent the last two years as a FIFA coaching instructor in Asia.
The team also added Italian midfielder Andrea Pisanu, joining countrymen Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta. Both Di Vaio and Nesta should be better acclimated this season after joining the Impact in the midst of the 2012 campaign, while goalkeeper Troy Perkins - acquired last August from Portland - also has had a chance to get used to the team.
Canadian Patrice Bernier had a breakout season last year with a team-high nine goals and eight assists in 27 matches.
The Impact were just 2-12-3 on the road last season, and Bernier knows they face a stiff challenge as they visit Seattle for the first time. The Sounders, who lost 4-1 in Montreal on June 16, went 11-4-2 on their own pitch in 2012.
"We're going to play in a stadium known for its crowd and atmosphere," Bernier said. "However, we're more mature than last season, we know each other more. We're ready to face the storm."