Sounders focus almost entirely on MLS Cup title

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 and accomplish that goal, a year after falling a game
short in the Western Conference final against Los Angeles, the
Sounders are going into the season 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
when the regular season begins on Saturday night against Montreal,
followed quickly by a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal
against Mexican power Tigres.

But it’s the outcome later in the year that matters most to the
Sounders.

”I’d be lying if I said I wish on January 19 or whenever we
started preseason that we didn’t have our squad completely settled.
I knew that this year was going to be a tough one and unfortunately
it coincides with a big Champions League quarterfinal,” Seattle
general manager Adrian Hanauer said.

”But 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.”

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 remains 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 where he led Seattle in goals and
earned his way into a call-up for the U.S. national team.

While Johnson and Montero never completely clicked in their one
season playing together their dual presence created havoc for
defenses. Johnson seemed to be the greater recipient, after scoring
a team-high 14 goals in MLS play, but that was partly due to
defenders wondering where Montero was lurking.

The most likely replacement would be David Estrada, who started
last season on a scoring binge with five goals in 13 matches before
breaking his left foot. Seattle could also use Sammy Ochoa or slide
Zakuani or Rosales up front. Seattle is also trying to finalize a
deal with Spanish club Levante to bring in Martins as another
scoring threat.

”Does Eddie have the potential to score 20 goals? Yes he does.
Is it going to happen? I’m not sure,” Seattle 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.”

Preventing goals will be just as big a concern for Seattle. Not
because of its goalkeeper, however, after Gspurning had a stellar
first year in the MLS, but due to the questions along the backline.
When Seattle traded Parke, it lost its most consistent central
defender.

The hope was that Patrick Ianni would team with Jhon Kennedy
Hurtado and step into Parke’s spot, but he’s been sidelined for
most of the preseason with a foot injury. Seattle drafted Eriq
Zavaleta out of Indiana with its first pick in the MLS SuperDraft.
Even though he was a forward and goal scorer in college, the
Sounders project him as an eventual defender – a role that because
of depth could be coming sooner than expected for the rookie.

The ability for Joseph to play a number of different positions
gives Seattle some flexibility, but he likely won’t be in game
shape for a few weeks. Seattle also signed former Liverpool
defender Djimi Traore before the start of the season.

”I’m glad they allowed me to come here and play with this
group,” Joseph said. ”It’s very special, very talented group and
hopefully we can get the results every week we come out here and
play.”