Tonight's game against Jaguares essentially marks the end of the Sounders' 2012 preseason. The team's roster for the start of the season is basically set. Yesterday Sigi stated that tonight's game will be about focusing on preparing for next week's match against Santos Laguna. Time to stop focusing on which players the Sounders will choose and start looking at how the pieces they have fit together. Everyone is antsy for the season to start. You hear it in the players comments and throughout the net. But with a week to go, we still have to wait a bit longer. The lull provides an opportunity to look at three of the big roster questions facing the 2012 Sounders.
Question 1: How will the Sounders use their bench?
In 2011, the Sounders bench became a tactical arsenal. Players rolled into and out of the lineup as the situation warranted and Sigi was able to create tactical mismatches across the various competitions. Expectation led to performance and the team excelled. Key injuries and the team's unbalanced depth necessitated the moves. But the result was joyous to behold.
The 2012 Sounders appear to have a more balanced roster positionally. The only real question mark in terms of positional depth lies at the more forward central midfield position. After Brad Evans the team will need to move a player out of position, rely on two more defensive center mids or rely on Mike Seamon. Yes, there is still angst over the starting forwards, but that has more to do with injury and fear than depth. Not including Roger Levesque, the 2012 Sounders are 6 deep at forward with Fredy Montero, Eddie Johnson, David Estrada, Sammy Ochoa, Cordell Cato and Babayele Sodade. The team has multiple options in the wide midfield and this area again looks to be a core strength of the team. The team is 3 deep at defensive central midfield, two deep at right fullback, three deep on the left and has five solid options at CB. There are still four goal keepers on the roster though Josh Ford will certainly begin the season on the Injured Reserve since he had to be shut down for at least 6-8 weeks.
On paper the 2012 Sounders appear more stratified than the 2011 version of the team. There appears to be a reasonably clear first team and second team. With the Sounders' multiple competitions more evenly spread throughout the season, it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to see the team fielding one squad for MLS and CCCL Quarterfinal matches, a second squad for the USOC and CCCL Group stage matches and then a third squad for the Reserve Schedule. Which brings us full circle to the question of how the Sounders will use their bench.
The biggest personnel changes in the 'first' team are Eddie Johnson as the second forward, Adam Johansson at right full back and Michael Gspurning at goal keeper. The other major change will be Steve Zakuani's return as he is reincorporated into the attack. The core players of the first team are a year more seasoned and they've been together long enough to understand what to expect from each other. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Brad Evans are healthy and appear to be fully recovered from their injuries of two years ago. Objectively, this team is probably the best Starting 11 the Sounders have ever started.
Yet, the 2012 bench presents Sigi with solid tactical options. Steve Zakuani will begin the season on the bench. Even at 75%, he poses a serious threat. Christian Sivebaek's combination of size and speed could prove deadly. David Estrada's evolution promises a work rate the Sounders haven't seen since Sebastian LeToux was lost in the Expansion Draft. Marc Burch will push Leo Gonzalez for starting time. Servando Carrasco, Zach Scott, Roger Levesque and Patrick Ianni offer solid defensive tactical options depending on the situation. If Sammy Ochoa can work his way out of the doghouse or if any of the younger players like Andrew Duran or Cordell Cato develop quickly, Sigi should have more weapons at his disposal than in previous years.
Realistically, I think that Sigi will start the season fielding a more traditional Starting 11 than we have seen in the recent past. This will give the newly integrated players time to become acclimated with their team mates and will give the team time to work out the kinks that will still be there due to the shortened preseason. As always, injuries will create necessity, but otherwise I expect the team to roll out the same Starting 11 for a while and use the 18 to reward players who are excelling during practice.
Once the season is in full swing, I expect that Sigi will return to a more tactical rotation. The new turf and the unbalanced MLS schedule will alleviate some of the wear and tear, but I fully expect Sigi to further compensate by utilizing the depth and quality of his bench to give players rest. The drop off in quality this year from first and second team appears to be less of a factor and the esprit de corps that tactical rotation creates should continue to help the team. You are a Sounder and we expect to win when you take the pitch.
Question 2: How will the tactical adjustments on defense impact the flow of the game?
The Sounders' offseason moves revolved around three key ideas. The got bigger. They got faster. And they overhauled their defense. Their investment in size and speed will play out over the season. But the big question revolving around these moves for me is the issue of how they will work tactically out of the back.
Michael Gspurning is a different kind of GK than Kasey Keller. Beyond the obviously physical differences, there is a definite difference in personality. Kasey Keller is intense. Gspurning appears much more happy go lucky. Keller was brought in to anchor and stabilize the team. He was its leader. Gspurning's job is simply to be the GK. This change in focus should allow Gspurning the freedom to be himself and work on helping the team's transition game. Gspurning's history shows that he plays the game with his feet more than many keepers. If he can spark the team's transition along the ground, the team should become better at both time of possession and the counter attack.
Adam Johannson appears to be an upgrade over James Riley. Riley is a consummate gentleman and helped to define the Sounders first 3 seasons. But when the team made a decision to upgrade its defense, a key component of the change was Johannson. Sigi's first order of business once Johannson arrived in Arizona was to pair him up with Mauro Rosales and start to bond these players into a unit. There appears to be a solid chemistry developing between the two men and I have a hunch that some of the most beautiful soccer of the 2012 season will involve this tandem. On one key exchange during the preseason they set up an amazing goal through a series of give and goes up the right hand side of the pitch. I will not be surprised if the Sounders have a tendency to transition the ball up the right side of the pitch and then Rosales and Johannson deliver crosses into the middle and left of the attacking third.
The acquisition of Marc Burch appears to be a simple replacement for Tyson Wahl. Neither Burch nor Gonzalez strikes me as a strength in the Sounders 2012 roster. I hope that the position is not a liability. I think that we can expect the same basic level of performance we saw last year on the left. The major difference will be in how these men adapt to the tactical emphasis on possession and transition along the ground.
The other key member of the defensive overhaul is Andrew Duran. Lost in all of the discussion revolving around the team's positional needs at CMF and FWD is his addition on defense. Essentially Andrew Duran replaces Taylor Graham. This single positional change is arguably the biggest of all of the offseason defensive upgrades. Yes, Duran is a rookie, but he brings a skill set to the table that Taylor did not. Initially his inclusion will have the most impact on the team's secondary competitions; the USOC and CCL Group stage matches. I also won't be surprised to see him work his way into the 18. Andrew plays well with the ball at his feet, appears to be adapting to the level of play and should see much more time on the pitch than Taylor did in 2011.
I also think that the increased emphasis on possession will help the returning players. Patrick Ianni did best two years ago when the team had a similar emphasis. Osvaldo Alonso's game is built on possession. So is Jeff Parke's. Leo Gonzalez works better on the ground than in the air. All of this bodes well.
The other factor will be the new field turf. This surface should reward the Sounders' more tactical approach than the 2011 surface did. Balls should sit up better and the team should be able to feather passes into the corners that last year would have skipped harmlessly over the touchline.
Question 3: What will Alvaro Fernandez' role be once Steve Zakuani returns to health?
Lurking in the background, this question will create its own brand of headaches for Sigi and the coaching staff. Flaco is one of the team's DPs and technically gifted. But finding a place for him on the pitch may prove problematic once Steve Zakuani returns. Ideally the team would like to have it's best players on the pitch at the same time in key matches, but Flaco might end up being the odd man out. His natural position is WMF. But with Rosales and Zakuani, the team has two potentially All Star caliber wide mids. If Sivabaek develops into a beast on the wings, Flaco could be further pushed to the periphery. Much has been said about moving Flaco into the center, but he has a tendency to get battered around like a pin ball when he moves into the center of the pitch. He has the skills to be a center mid, but I question whether he has the physical side of the game that will allow him to be effective there in MLS. His game is more suited to a different style of league play.
As a DP, he is far too expensive to be used as a situational substitute under the cap constraints of the MLS. If Zakuani and Sivebaek see regular playing time with the Starting 11, I think that the team will look to move Flaco to another league during the Summer window.
Of course, none of these questions can be answered on paper. The Sounders must answer them on the pitch. Champions are defined by how their teams answer these types of questions. The 2012 season will create its own drama and I expect that some of the answers will surprise us. Only one more thing remains. Let the games begin.