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Sounders well prepared for CCL

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Sanna Nyassi is one of four current Sounders who played here during the team's USL days.
Sanna Nyassi is one of four current Sounders who played here during the team's USL days.

The Sounders came into this season knowing they would be playing in at least three different competitions: the MLS regular season, the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League. They didn't know how many extra matches they would play, but they knew it would be a minimum of three and as many as 16 before the end of the MLS season.

After winning their first two Open Cup matches and advancing to the group stage of CCL, they now know they'll play at least 11 extra matches plus a potential USOC title match before the MLS Cup Playoffs even start. If the Sounders were to make the playoffs and advance all the way to the final, that would be four additional matches. By advancing out of the group stage of CCL, that could mean up to two more matches before the start of the 2011 MLS season and as many as four more during the MLS season (the CCL quarterfinals are in February-March and the semifinals and finals run through April).

Point being, the Sounders have already guaranteed that they'll be a busy group for the rest of the season. Luckily, they have a front office that actually seemed to relish this opportunity.

"We want to win everything we play in," Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer said during our one-on-one conversation following Tuesday's training session. "I think it would be naive to go into every year in a league that is structured for parity to assume that we could win a treble.

"But we talk everyday how best to structure our roster for now and in the future. If we qualify for Champions League again, we will probably go through some of the same conversations. If we happen to not qualify for Champions League, we’ll talk about that and how that may or may not affect what we want to do with the roster."

While some MLS coaches have voiced their displeasure with some of the fixture congestion these tournaments create, the Sounders have shown nothing but near unbridled enthusiasm for the prospect of competing for league, domestic and continental titles all at the same time. The players have often likened CCL to Europe's Champions League and they have spoken openly about how they believe the USOC may have helped them turn around their MLS season.

In countless interviews over the course of the past few months, I have yet to hear a player or coach mutter so much as an ounce of frustration with a schedule that has already seen them play four matches in 10 days twice and will close out with at least 15 matches in 52 days.

"I think that our USL roots are good in that way," said Hanauer, who ran the USL Sounders for their final seven seasons. "We have guys who are used to playing three games in four days and didn’t complain about it then, and certainly won’t be complaining about playing three games in seven days."

Among the players who came over from the USL side were current Sounders Sanna Nyassi, Roger Levesque, Zach Scott and Taylor Graham.  That group has started 23 matches across all competitions this season and only Graham has not been a regular starter at some point during MLS play this season.

Sounders assistant coach Brian Schmetzer also came over from the USL side, having been the team's manager for Hanauer's entire tenure at the helm.

"Sigi (Schmid), Brian, (Technical Director) Chris (Henderson), myself, we all share that attitude, a bit of that workmanlike attitude," Hanauer said. "Sigi is, I imagine, the hardest working coach in MLS and leads by example in that way. I think that sometimes that brushes off."

Hanauer did admit that playing these extra games is a lot easier when you are winning. Since moving to MLS, the Sounders have played 10 competitive non-MLS matches and have yet to lose, winning seven in regulation and drawing just once.

"The thing is that you rarely hear about those extra games as a bother until teams lose in them," he said. "I’m sure we aren’t immune to that either. I’m sure there will be a day when we lose a game in one of those tournaments and say 'They’re a bother in the schedule anyway.' I hope that’s not true.

"But anyway, as this league evolves we should be able to manage multiple tournaments. That’s the way it happens around the world and that’s the way it should happen here."

As committed as the front office, coaches and even players may be to taking these tournaments seriously, commitment alone is not enough.

While Fredy Montero may say "In this type of tournament, there is no getting tired," he is not a machine. I love that he is committed to winning, but he is not a character in a video game. He will get tired. He will get hurt. At some point, his performance will suffer if he is forced to play starter's minutes in every match. 

It's nice to know the Sounders have an appreciation for that fact. While starters like Montero and Steve Zakuani have been available in every match this season, they have not been forced to play heavy minutes in many of the non-MLS matches. Even guys like James Riley and Leo Gonzalez, who have played almost every minute of every MLS match, have received occasional respites from starting.

That all the starters aren't asked to play heavy minutes in these non-MLS matches is hardly uncommon. What sets the Sounders apart is the relative lack of drop off from starters to reserves.

"I think the results were shown last year and again this year that it’s just not in our DNA to blow off a competition," Hanauer said. "It’s tough, for sure, and it doesn’t mean the starting 11 will play in every match.

"But for sure the next group or whoever is on the field has to be mentally prepared and know that when they put on a Sounders jersey it’s all about winning. You’re going to mix and match, but we have a high level of confidence all the way down the line."

Mostly out of necessity, the Sounders have started 24 different players this season -- tied for third most in MLS -- but it does help illustrate the roster's depth. While other teams have had comparable numbers of players start, few can boast the bench talent of the Sounders.

Chicago (22), Los Angeles (22), New York (22), San Jose (23) and Toronto (24) are the only other teams with as many as 22 different starters that are in the playoff chase. Of those teams, only San Jose is outside the Top 5 in salary.

It may come as little surprise then, that teams with higher payrolls also appear to be the ones with deeper rosters. The Sounders also appear to be among the wisest spenders. They currently boast a back four that features three starters making less than $75,000 a year and three of their starting midfielders make less than $70,000 annually. All six of those players have made significant contributions to the Sounders' recent turnaround.

Patrick Ianni and Jeff Parke were first paired together in an Open Cup match and Nate Sturgis and Sanna Nyassi first found their form in non-MLS competition.

Far from being a burden, those extra matches may have actually helped get the season going in the right direction.

"We’ve got a great squad at the moment that is rally fighting for one another," Sounders goal keeper Kasey Keller said. "Maybe it took some of those Open Cup games to come around and it pushed some of those guys, 'We’re losing, they’re winning, maybe we need to step it up.' Like I said, it’s a good healthy, competitive environment at the moment."