Even if the Seattle Sounders don't make another offseason move, there should be at least four different starters when they open the 2012 season than when they played their final game of the 2011 season. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Adam Johansson was officially introduced to the Seattle media on Friday. Joining him on the call was Seattle Sounders Technical Director Chris Henderson. Depending on how you chose to interpret Henderson's comments and some recent developments, the Sounders are either very close to a finished product or merely just starting to round into shape.
So which is it? That's what I'm going to try to ascertain in this space.
Evidence: With the addition of Johansson, the Sounders have a player clearly capable of starting at every position. If the season were to begin tomorrow, the Sounders' starting XI would probably look something very similar to this:
GK: Michael Gspurning; LB: Leo Gonzalez; CBs: Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Jeff Parke; RB: Johansson; LM: Alvaro Fernandez; CM: Brad Evans; CDM: Osvaldo Alonso; RM: Mauro Rosales; Forwards: Fredy Montero and Sammy Ochoa.
You'd also have guys like Lamar Neagle, Servando Carrasco, Mike Fucito, Zach Scott and Patrick Ianni capable of playing significant minutes off the bench. It looks like we can probably throw Danish import Christian Sivebaek and DC United castoff Marc Burch into the mix as well. That's all assuming zero contribution from Steve Zakuani or O'Brian White.
Personally, I think that's a lineup that has a very good chance of contending for a Supporters' Shield and a MLS Cup. I think you can also make the argument that, at least on paper, it's probably an improvement over the team that started the season last year, as well as the one that was eliminated by Real Salt Lake in the playoffs.
I'm not going to say that this team can't be improved upon. There is surely a better target forward to be found than Ochoa. Our left back situation is obviously no better than it was last year, and is maybe even a little worse. As much as I like Evans, I won't sit here and say that a true playmaking central midfielder wouldn't be a nice addition. If you look beyond those spots, though, we can see a lot to like.
- Johansson, I think, will greatly improve this team's ability to maintain possession and start the attack from the back.
- Rosales, let's remember, was not a starter when the season opened a year ago and was hurt during the playoffs. His presence will be a huge upgrade.
- As Henderson has been repeated many times, Gspurning is not Kasey Keller, but there's every reason to expect that he'll be a very solid MLS goalkeeper.
- Hurtado and Parke, who last year were still getting used to each other, have now played together extensively and have formed a solid center back pairing. Hurtado is also another year removed from his knee surgery.
- Fernandez, assuming he's here, appears to be adjusting nicely and enjoyed his best scoring output of his career last year.
- Ochoa should be now be fully fit and will have the benefit of an entire training camp.
- Even Montero is a better player than he was at the start of last year.
Add it all up and you have a team that most MLS front offices would be overjoyed with having. But we like to at least think that the Sounders are not like most MLS front offices, which brings us to Part 2.
Just taking shape
Evidence: Even if we consider the rumored signing of Sivebaek to be part of the "finished product" part of the discussion, there have been plenty of other signs that suggest this might not be the exact team that takes the field when the Sounders play Santos Laguna on March 8. A major part of that could be what happens with Fernandez.
I'll assume you saw the rumor that Fernandez's agent welcomed interest from Italy's Palermo (if not, go give it a quick read and come back). Let's assume Palermo is actually interested and is willing to pay a fair price to obtain Fernandez's services. That could kickstart a rather significant chain of events that would likely lead to some serious changes to the Sounders' core.
First off, it would open a rather significant piece of financial flexibility. If the Sounders got as little as $1 million to transfer Fernandez to Italy, that would net them the maximum $667,000 in allocation funds. Just as importantly, it would open a Designated Player spot and the $335,000 in cap space it occupies. Combined with the allocation money they should already have based on previous preseason moves, it would have a three-part effect.
1. They would have room to sign a new DP ($335,000)
2. They could buy down Rosales' contract below the DP threshold ($100,000, estimated)
3. They could afford another DP ($335,000)
Even if we assume the Sounders have already spent the existing allocation money they have and would only have the $667,000 netted from this theoretical Fernandez transfer, that would still give them $232,000 in allocation after adding a DP and paying down Rosales. That should be enough to buy down the cap hit of a third DP to the minimum $150,000. Obviously, there's quite a bit of guesswork involved whenever you attempt to break down salary cap space in MLS, but it sure seems like the Sounders would have a lot of maneuverability.
My expectation would be for the Sounders to use Neagle as a stopgap at left mid at least until Zakuani is closer to full fitness. That would allow the Sounders to focus on two key areas: striker and center mid.
I'm hardly an expert when it comes to scouting international soccer talent, but there are plenty of intriguing names out there who could fit in nicely. Panama's Blas Perez has recently been linked with a move to MLS. He scored 21 goals in 24 Mexican Primera games during 2010-11. Prince Tagoe, a player the Sounders were heavily linked to last year, has reportedly fallen out of favor with Turkey's Bursaspor and may even be unemployed. I don't have any similarly intriguing names of central midfielders to throw out there, but I have no doubt the Sounders are already scouring the world for one.
If forced to decide between these two options, I'd lean toward thinking the Sounders are much closer to a finished product and that this team will only undergo small cosmetic changes before now and the start of the season. I'd love for them to trade up in the draft in order to grab someone like Kelyn Rowe -- heck, I'd even support trading most of the draft in order to move into the Top 5 -- but I'm not sure how likely that is. Henderson indicated that this year's training camp will include nearly as many players as last year's did, but most of those guys will be competing for just a handful of spots at the tail end of the roster. Of course, that's where Neagle started last year and we know how that turned out.
I will add this caveat, though: If I know anything about Adrian Hanauer, Henderson and the rest of the Sounders front office it's that they are not ones to rest on their laurels. There are 10 weeks between now and March 8. If they see a way to improve this team, I have no doubt they'll take it. This could end up being a very interesting offseason.