Three home games. Three very different opponents. Three wins.
On a superficial level this is an impressive statistic in its own right. Historically MLS squads do not feature tactical flexibility. But reviewed in the context of the injury report, this result takes on a different significance. The Sounders currently have eight injured players and two players away from the team on International duty. One third of their roster was not available last Saturday night. Four of the missing players were potential All-Star-caliber players, including their opening-day Captain. Three of the Sounders' first four draft picks are injured. They had to bring in Academy players and invitees to round out their roster for Monday's Reserve League match. Yet, the Sounders were still able to defeat the most defensive team in the league, the Houston Dynamo. At the time, the Dynamo had been undefeated, winning their first two games on the road. The Sounders featured a roster and a tactical approach that differed markedly from their first two home games. They still had other tactical options on the bench. And they still won.
Compare these results to the impact that injuries have had to the LA Galaxy and Toronto FC. The Galaxy lost Omar Gonzalez to an off-season injury and their defensive strength has suffered considerably. They have managed just one win in four starts even with their vaunted offensive weapons. Since the start of the season, Toronto has lost their defensive lynch pin, DP Torsten Frings and their starting GK, Stephan Frei. Their team is currently in tactical shambles and is free falling through the MLS power rankings after opening their season by knocking LA out of the CCL quarterfinals.
The Sounders' 2012 depth generated a great deal of off-season discussion. Many people looked at the roster and argued that the team was deeper and more balanced than previous editions of the roster had been. But with the loss of 12 players from the 2011 roster (Mike Fucito, Lamar Neagle, Kasey Keller, Erik Friberg, Terry Boss, James Riley, Tyson Wahl, O'Brian White, Nate Jaqua, Pat Noonan, Taylor Graham and Miguel Montano), questions lingered about the team's depth and whether the new players would be able to offer the team the same kinds of options that defined their 2011 success. The season is still young, but the first three games provide a very encouraging answer to the question.
The 2012 Sounders' roster is balanced. One third of the team is down with injuries and the team still has 3 Goal Keepers, 3 Center Backs, 3 Full Backs, 3 Center Defensive Midfielders, 3 Box-to-Box Midfielders, 3 Wide Midfielders and 3 Fowards with no one playing out of position. Granted, some of the options are green and others are seasoned, but the balance is impressive. Furthermore, many of these players can play other positions if necessary. Zach Scott could easily play as a CB. Marc Burch could move up to the WMF. Any combination of the current Center Midfielders would create a dynamic pairing.
This balance allows the Seattle coaching staff to err on the side of caution as the injured players recover. There is no need to rush players back into the fray and risk further injury. They can take their time with Steve Zakuani, Mauro Rosales, Adam Johansson and Eddie Johnson. This balance also builds trust across the roster. Brad Evans can step out of the game and let Servando Carrasco take over when he feels a twinge in his hamstring. No need to push the issue and risk a long-term injury. His teammates will pick up the slack and preserve the result.
The 2012 Sounders' roster is also tactically flexible. Look at the team's options at Right Midfield. Mauro Rosales, Roger Levesque and Christian Sivebaek offer three very different skill sets. When Cordell Cato returns he brings a fourth look. The team could also play Alvaro Fernandez there for a fifth option. And the scary thing (for our opponents, at least) is that any of these options, including Cato, are reasonable in the context of the MLS.
And this flexibility extends throughout the roster. Adam Johansson and Zach Scott give the team two very different options at RB. The team has three 3 CBs who can all start without batting an eyelash, and when Andrew Duran returns he will bring yet another option and a different style of play. Leo Gonzalez and Marc Burch give the team two different looks at LB. Alvaro Fernandez and Steve Zakuani will offer two different styles of LM. And the team's Forward core is a smorgasbord of looks and options. As these players settle into the season, players heal and the new players adjust to the league, the team's strength should only improve. Christian Sivebaek may be a project now. But as he gains confidence and an understanding of MLS, he is an increasingly attractive option coming off of the bench.
The 2012 Sounders are deep. Absorbing the loss of 10 players on a 30 man roster is ample evidence of this fact. But there is more to depth than just numbers. The team has so many tactical options that thinking of the team in terms of a traditional first and second string has become more difficult since the season opened. In particular, David Estrada's early performance changed the landscape and demonstrates just how valuable the team's depth and flexibility have become. But even the third-string players have a different feel on this team. Alex Caskey, Andrew Duran, Cordell Cato, Andy Rose and the 3rd GK could all play. They would not be the first choice, but none of them appears to be filler, blind hope or a major project. They are simply green. Babayele Sodade and Michael Tetteh are the closest things this team has to projects.
It is still very early in the season. Any expectations of how this team will perform over the entire season must be tempered. The team hasn't gone on the road or played any of the powerhouse offensive squads in the MLS. (Though their performance against Santos Laguna was encouraging, with the notable exception of one majorly disappointing half.) Another month or two will help to give a better understanding of just how deep, balanced and flexible the 2012 roster really is. The early signs are encouraging.