Seattle focuses on accountability and chemistry after offseason overhaul
Seattle midfielder Brad Evans looked around the locker room in the wake of Sounders FC's Western Conference semifinal defeat to Portland in November and started to wonder about the future.
Uncertainty lurked around every corner. Sigi Schmid faced public pressure about his job performance after a mid-season tear skidded into a seven-match winless streak to close the regular season. Several players fell into the same category after the evident disappointment on the field and the reported fractures in the changing room.
“Sitting around in that locker room, looking around, you think, well, it's never going to be the same,” Evans said during the MLS media and marketing tour on Monday. “There's going to be an offloading of guys. And that's what happened.”
The repair work started before Sounders FC investor/operator Joe Roth and general manager Adrian Hanauer confirmed Schmid's return for a sixth season a week after Sounders FC's playoff demise. Evans said he met with Osvaldo Alonso, Clint Dempsey and Schmid the morning after the season-ending defeat in Portland to evaluate where things went wrong and figure out to fix them.
Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid retained his job after receiving criticism in the wake of a late-season swoon and a playoff exit to Portland.
The trio of players – a group identified by Hanauer as a “triumvirate of leaders going forward” during a conference call with local reporters after the season ended – and Schmid highlighted the need to address the culture within the club and impose more accountability across the board. The accumulation of smaller issues and larger concerns – including the fallout from Dempsey's arrival during the summer transfer window and the corresponding changes in playing time and wage distribution within the squad – eventually sapped the collective resolve and swamped the existing structures.
“It was a multitude of events,” Evans said. “I think the blame lands on just about everybody. I think it lands on individuals who were involved in certain situations. I think it lands the captain at the time for not getting <stuff> right in the locker room and saying, if you're late to this or you're not wearing the right thing to the team meal, then that's a fine. All of those little things started to pile up, no matter who it was.”
Hanauer, sporting director Chris Henderson and Schmid reconfigured the squad to address those concerns before they blossomed again in 2014. A protracted list of changes boils down to a few selected alterations – Kenny Cooper, Stefan Frei, Chad Marshall and Marco Pappa arrived, while Michael Gspurning, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Eddie Johnson and Mauro Rosales departed – to capture the sentiment. The exchanges may not exactly prove like for like in some cases, but the net effect of acquiring fresh and seasoned players to shoulder the challenges ahead could offer a necessary jolt to the team, according to Evans.
“I think, in years past, we probably had better players,” Evans said. “But I think we filled those shoes with better people. And it's something that had to happen.”
Sounders FC general manager Adrian Hanauer did not mince words after his side stumbled to end the season. “I'd be lying if I said this was the best locker room we've had in the five years I've been here,” Hanauer told local reporters.
The early returns are positive, according to the key figures. Schmid told the Seattle Times last week he noticed the competition, the spirit and the intensity within the ranks during a recent training session. Evans heard similar reports when he asked around during his time with the U.S. national team and noted the improvement upon his return to the club.
Even if the changes take hold as anticipated, they may not provide the desired outcome. Locker room chemistry offers no assurances of results by itself, nor does it remain fixed during the course of the campaign if the team stumbles along the way. Neither of those observations detracts from Evans' optimism about the perceived improvements within the revamped setup and the potential similarities with another successful Sounders FC team, though.
“To me, it almost felt like our first year, 2009, expansion side a little bit,” Evans said. “There are some guys who have played together, but there are a lot of new faces. We had a great locker room back then and we did tremendous our first year. Hopefully, we'll take a little bit from that, but you can't guarantee anything. Just because you have great guys does not mean you'll have a great team. We have to do work on both ends.
If the work yields the anticipated dividends, then Sounders FC will reflect on the exercise as a necessary job well done. If not, then Evans may find himself surveying another disappointing, season-ending scene and weighing the likely fallout once again.