Inside MLS season preview: Seattle Sounders

Clint Dempsey will hope to lead Seattle to its first MLS Cup after returning from his World Cup duties.

Joe Nicholson/Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

ESSENTIAL FACTS

Last year in a nutshell: Seattle looked like a MLS Cup contender when it signed Clint Dempsey in midseason, but a late swoon hastened Sounders FC’s postseason exit and prompted significant offseason changes.

(as of March 4)

Incoming: GK: Stefan Frei (Toronto FC); DF: Jalil Anibaba (Chicago), Damion Lowe (Univ. of Hartford), Chad Marshall (Columbus); MF: Aaron Kovar (Stanford), Marco Pappa (Heerenveen/Netherlands); FW: Chad Barrett (New England),Tristan Bowen (Chivas USA), Kenny Cooper (FC Dallas), Sean Okoli (Wake Forest)

Outgoing: GK: Michael Gspurning (PAOK/Greece); DF: Marc Burch (Colorado), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (Chicago), Patrick Ianni (Chicago), James Ockford (New York Cosmos); MF: Alex Caskey (D.C. United), Blair Gavin (unattached), Adam Moffat (FC Dallas), Mauro Rosales (Chivas USA); FW: Will Bates (unattached), Eddie Johnson (Seattle), Steve Zakuani (Portland), Eriq Zavaleta (Chivas USA – intraleague loan)

Seattle captain Osvaldo Alonso binds the team together with his earnest and effective work in central midfield.

FUNDAMENTALS

Key Player: Most of the attention will inevitably fall upon the high-profile stars up front, but influential captain Osvaldo Alonso establishes the baseline for this team. He covers acres of space in central midfield and provides the combative, rugged shield necessary to permit his side to push forward in numbers. His performances – particularly at CenturyLink Field – often dictate how the team as a whole functions. He must produce his typical Best XI-caliber form in order for Sounders FC to meet its lofty expectations.

Strengths: Seattle coach Sigi Schmid strengthened the overall fabric of the side with a series of offseason moves designed to address lingering problems in the locker room. The acquisition of Chad Marshall from Columbus reinforces a defense that leaked too many goals last season. Marshall offers a physical steadying presence alongside Jalil Anibaba or Djimi Traore. Leo Gonzalez (once he recovers fully from groin surgery) and DeAndre Yedlin offer plenty of width on the overlap with Yedlin more than capable of recovering adequately. Alonso provides Schmid with ample flexibility given his ability to cover ground in midfield. Brad Evans supports Alonso ably when he tucks inside from the right, while Marco Pappa – back after a subdued stint in the Eredivisie – slices forward from unique angles to stress defenses. Dempsey operates freely in his attacking midfield role, a marauding presence capable of turning the match instantly once he hits top form. Obafemi Martins looks likely to improve on his first season after a fairly productive first season. His pace and power threaten to any defense, particularly if he can establish some camaraderie with Dempsey. Kenny Cooper tops the list of potential partners, though Dempsey could also play up top to create room for a wide player like Lamar Neagle if Schmid seeks more midfield width. Cooper’s drifting runs should ensure plenty of operating room for Dempsey to surge into the final third when required. Depth is an asset with Jalil Anibaba and Neagle (a revelation last year) both capable of starting for other teams and Chad Barrett a useful player to have in the squad.

Weaknesses: Part of the offseason renovations addressed the surprisingly pressing issues in goal created by Michael Gspurning’s wobbles last season. Either Stefan Frei or Marcus Hahnemann must steady the ship to eradicate the concerns. Both men could use a bit more collective commitment to defensive duties to aid their causes. The shared desire to join the attack often leaves Sounders FC a bit exposed, particularly against teams capable of breaking quickly through wider areas. Alonso can track effectively to close down space, but he needs some help from his peers and the narrow midfield shape to solidify matters. Other sides can pull apart the shape and run Alonso ragged if they maintain the proper width in the middle third. Dempsey and Pappa both float in and out of games. If opposing teams cut their supply or if Dempsey fails to recapture his form after an indifferent spell at Fulham, then the forwards will starve for service.

Obafemi Martins scored eight times in 20 appearances last season, but he can improve upon that haul in 2014.

PROSPECTS FOR 2014

Key questions:

● Can Dempsey and Martins find their footing?: Talent isn’t the question for either player. Chemistry and form present pressing concerns, though. Dempsey hasn’t hit his best in the better part of a year, while Martins flickered on and off after arriving from Levante. Martins should benefit from a full training camp with the team. Dempsey must catch up quickly to exert the sort of influence expected from him ahead of the World Cup. Seattle needs both of them in top form for long periods to mount a sustained push toward the top of the Western Conference.

● Who will partner Marshall?: Anibaba and Traore loom as the two most likely options, though veteran Zach Scott has logged appearances in that spot during previous campaigns. Both players possess the mobility to compliment Marshall. The key in that spot: achieving the necessary level of consistency to complement the steady Marshall and steel the defense for the long haul.

● Is there a clear number one on the roster?: Frei and Hahnemann present two viable options between the sticks. Frei – astutely acquired from Toronto FC – represents the long-term play, a talented goalkeeper capable of bigger and better things if he can maintain his health and return to form. Hahnemann looms as the instant alternative, a savvy player capable of guiding Sounders FC through a rough patch or two along the way. Either way, this side should find a safe pair of hands.

Best case scenario: The emphasis on chemistry reaps significant dividends on the field. Dempsey and Martins flourish in the attacking third and tear opposing defenses asunder. The defense holds with Marshall playing a vital role. And the combined efforts lead Seattle to its first MLS Cup appearance.

Worst case scenario: Problems emerge from the outset as Dempsey falters and Martins wonders whether the rumors of his exit will eventually come true. Marshall does his best to thwart the defensive concerns, but opposing teams still find a way through despite Alonso’s tireless efforts. Another playoff excursion ends in disappointment.

2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS

FEB. 24Chicago Fire – Mike Magee’s encore – Chivas USA

FEB. 25Colorado Rapids – Exploring the new vision in Columbus – Columbus Crew

FEB. 26D.C. United – Eddie Johnson steps into the spotlight again – FC Dallas

FEB. 27Houston Dynamo – Galaxy plots a return to the summit – LA Galaxy

FEB. 28Montréal Impact – Nesta shares his knowledge with Montréal – New England Revolution

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MARCH 3New York Red Bulls – Supporters’ Shield triumph transforms New York – Philadelphia Union

MARCH 4Portland Timbers – Identity offers Real Salt Lake a touchstone amid change – Real Salt Lake

MARCH 5San Jose Earthquakes – Seattle Sounders – Sporting Kansas City

MARCH 6: Toronto FC – Vancouver Whitecaps