Tuesday, June 22, 2010

SOUNDERS FC: Examining the Sounders after 13 games in 2010

After a 17 day pause for the start of the World Cup, the Sounders were finally back in Seattle and training on Sunday. The club has played 13 regular season matches so far and despite high hopes entering the season, the Sounders will restart the MLS season ranked second to last in the Western Conference.

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The follow-up to an improbable 2009 season has not gone as many fans and players would have hoped, but with more than half the season remaining, Seattle is still in a position to decide their own fate. Looking back at the first 13 games, we can identify areas of improvement for the second-year squad. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first.

The Bad:

Seattle has lost six games and tied their opponent three times. That represents 24 uncollected points by the Sounders (4-6-3, 15 points). Most of the losses (0-4-2, 2 points) have come against teams in the Western Conference, a trend that must change if Seattle still wants to make the playoffs this year.

Only the top four teams from each conference will advance and the Sounders, who have held their own against the Eastern Conference (4-2-1, 13 points), MUST be competitive against the likes of Salt Lake City (7-3-2), L.A. (10-1-2) and Colorado (6-3-2) and not rely on the easy points earned by wins over Philly (2-7-1), New England (3-7-2) and D.C. (3-8-1)

Several injuries to key players forced Seattle to use 24 different players in MLS games versus 22 for 2009. Nate Jaqua has been on Injured Reserve since March 24 and has yet to see MLS action. John Kennedy Hurtado and Osvaldo Alonso are both sidelined with injuries.

In the coming months, Seattle has will be distracted from gaining ground in the MLS West by two tournaments. The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League are scheduled for June and July. Oh, and the Sounders still have to play their second friendly against Celtic. That is a minimum of 35, and if Seattle seizes every opportunity, a maximum of 54 games they will play in 2010, not including preseason matches and tournaments.

With such a mountain of work to climb, what hope can we glean from the young 2010 season?

The Good:

Do not expect Seattle to ignore the chance to add hardware to their war chest in an effort to make the MLS playoffs. Designated player Freddie Ljungberg said that the Sounders must be prepared to use several different approaches to training for an extended run of play, adding that all the competitions deserve equal effort from the club.

Thus far, 2010 has provided many positives despite all the gloom six losses can provide. The home crowd was treated to their second muti-goal Opening Day in as many years, upstaging the brand-spanking-new Philadelphia Union and former Sounder Sebastian Le Toux on their way to a 2-0 victory.

In their inaugural season, the Sounders could not find a strategy for winning in the month of May. After drawing with Columbus and suffering a 4-0 whipping at the hands of L.A. in their first two May-matches in 2010, it looked like the “Curse of May” was going to be permanent. A 1-0 victory on the road in New York broke the statistical shackles of May, never mind that they dropped the next two games that month, finishing 1-3-1 with four points.

After a five game stretch in which they went 1-3-1 the Sounders, using mostly reserve and newly signed players shut out Argentine powerhouse Boca Juniors 3-0 and earning first friendly victory in two years in the process. That sparked a second shutout nine days later, and this time it counted. After the 3-0 trouncing of the New England revolution, the Seattle had out scored their last three opponents six goals to one.

So, looking at all this data, what predictions can be made about the rest of the 2010 Sounders’ season?

Looking Forward:

Blaise Nkufo. The 35-year-old Swiss striker led his former Dutch team, FC Twente to a league championship this season. He is currently playing for the Swiss national team in their 2010 World Cup bid and will join the Rave Green once the tournament ends. His experience playing at a high level in Europe, along with Ljungberg behind playing midfield, could be a devastating combination should the two stay healthy and click early on offense. There is a slight downside though.

Nkufo is 35. He will have played between 50 and 75 games in 2010 by the end of the MLS regular season. Will he have the energy left to help push a goal-starved Sounders offensive to victory, or will he bee too worn out to contribute?

In addition to Nkufo joining the club, several key players are making a comeback after spending time on the bench. Forward Nate Jaqua played a large role in a scrimmage against a local team just before the World Cup break and is expected to be available for the Sounders next game against Philadelphia.

Sounders Head Coach Sigi Schmid also indicated that midfielder Peter Vagenas is back to full strength after straining a quadriceps, but that fellow midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who is also nursing a quad strain, will need additional time to recover. The busy schedule could mean more injuries in the coming weeks, but with many players nearly finished with rehab, the bench should be back up to full strength quickly.

The truth is nobody knows how things will end up. There is a lot of season left and Seattle will face many beatable teams during that stretch. The Sounders could come back from the break with a new mindset and sweep every game en route to winning the MLS Cup. As unlikely as that scenario may be, the Sounders still have many chances to win hardware this season. Unlike their neighbors in the “Safe” across the street, the Sounders avoided digging a deeper hole than they could crawl out of and if nothing else, it give them confidence heading into the remainder of their 2010 games.

Reach Galen Helmgren at nextseasonsports@gmail.com