Where do we go from here? I really hate asking a question in the lede (really, it's a Writing 101 no-no), but that's really the overarching question that will define this offseason.
A year ago, we were in a very similar situation. Looking at the difference in the roster from then to now shows how much changed, but how little as well.
You can argue the Seattle Sounders got more talented. Eddie Johnson, Christian Tiffert, Adam Johansson, Michael Gspurning, Mario Martinez and Steve Zakuani were among the players that were added in the meantime. Each of them represent a clear upgrade or at least not a significant downgrade over the players they replaced.
But were the Sounders actually better?
The defense improved by four goals, but the offense scored five fewer. This year's team advanced one round further in the playoffs, but also finished five spots lower in the overall table. They made it to the U.S. Open Cup final, but had to play it on the road against a much better team and lost in penalties. They advanced to the CCL quarterfinals and were perfect in the group stage, but played lesser opponents than they did in 2011.
I think you'd be hard-pressed to say the Sounders regressed, but there's almost no quantitative way to say they got better at least in a relative sense.
When you're a team with the Sounders' aspirations, though, not getting better is only marginally better than regressing.
The stated goal of this team is to win championships. It's unrealistic to expect the Sounders to win one every year, but that should not excuse falling short when they do.
Over the next few weeks and months, the Sounders must figure out what was missing and how to make it better. We know that teams can win championships without wildly spending on high-profile Designated Players. The San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City, the two top regular-season teams, had two of the lowest payrolls in the league.
But we also know that good players come at a cost. While no team has been able to mimic the LA Galaxy's ability to both spend AND win, they are proof that getting a few very talented players to perform at their optimum level can be worth sacrificing some depth.
For my money, these are the most pressing issues facing the Sounders this offseason in order of importance:
1. How do you stay healthy?
Much has been made over the fact that the Sounders used 34 different starting lineups in their 38 MLS games. That's A LOT! The reason for this was not so much Schmid's tinkering, but the lack of healthy bodies. At least 10 Sounders regulars missed at least five games due to injury this year. We can complain about tactics and everything else, but as long as there's no roster stability, it's very difficult to establish an identity.
So much of the team's problems are directly attributable to this issue. When Eddie Johnson, Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert were all playing, the Sounders had a tremendous offense. When one was missing, it was far less impressive. When Michael Gspurning was in goal, the defense was awesome. When he wasn't, the results were not so good. Obviously, some of these players are worth the risk and others were just unlucky. Figuring out that equation needs to be a the top priority.
Speaking of which...
2. How much can Mauro Rosales be relied upon?
For the second straight year, Rosales missed significant time in the playoffs. The Designated Player, in fact, has played just 99 of the possible 540 playoff minutes in the past two years and apparently had to be convinced to play against the Galaxy by Schmid. Is it just bad luck? Did he get overused? Is he simply injury-prone? That's what the Sounders need to figure out. In any case, I'd be very worried about using a DP spot on a player whose availability is so limited when he's needed most.
3. What happens with Fredy Montero?
I don't buy this idea that the team must choose between Montero and Eddie Johnson. But I do think it's time to take a serious look at whether or not he's the guy this team should be built around. The 25-year-old is coming off arguably his best MLS season, but he has still never scored in 10 playoff games. Montero played reasonably well in at least three of the four games this year, but at no point was he a dominant force. If the Sounders are going to join the MLS elite they need to get more production from their best players in the biggest games. Maybe Montero is that guy, but the Sounders at least need to be open to other possibilities. I've heard that Montero may be seeking an extension. By no means should the Sounders be looking to rid themselves of this talented a player, but committing long term needs to be examined very deliberately.
4. Can anything be done to improve the defense?
Of all the issues I think have been overblown among Sounders fans, it's the idea that this team didn't have a good defense. That's clearly false. You don't allow the second fewest goals by playing bad defense and Gspurning is not entirely responsible for that number. But you can always get better. I think it would be a huge miscalculation not to bring back Jeff Parke, but none of the defenders are perfect. If there's a defender out there who can help improve the defense while also improving the team's ability to transition, that needs to be explored.