Early in the classic baseball movie Bull Durham, there is a scene where the veteran catcher, Crash Davis, ends up out back of a bar with the pitching protégé he's supposed to be helping to develop. Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke' LaLoosh wants to fight, but Crash hands Ebby a baseball instead and goads him into throwing the ball at Crash's chest.
"C'mon Rook. Show us that million dollar arm, cause I've got, ooh, I've got a good idea about that 5 cent head of yours."
All the physical ability in the world is worthless in professional sports unless it's backed by understanding. The entire plot of the movie is driven by the relationships that surround this rookie phenom's professional development. But what the movie doesn't show is what happens three years down the line when Nuke is no longer a rookie phenomenon, but is instead a veteran pitcher entering the prime of his career. How does the investment in his future that was promised in the movie pan out?
In many respects this will be the plot of the Sounders' 2012 season. Fredy Montero, Alvaro Fernandez, Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans are now seasoned veterans. The Sounders' Front Office took off the training wheels and has handed the helm of the ship to these young men. The administration and coaches trust that these men will rise to the challenge. It isn't an unreasonable expectation.
Maturity matters in soccer. Experience matters. Understanding matters. These men have a clearer idea of what to expect on and off the pitch. They know what to expect from each other. The game has slowed down and they can now see nuances and opportunities they missed two years ago. They are ready to handle the reins. You can see it in their drive and actions in the preseason. Their focus and relaxed confidence cuts through every interview and highlight tape. The 2012 Sounders belong to them.
The Sounders Front Office didn't make any flashy offseason moves to bolster the team's offense. The team secured Mauro Rosales's services. They found replacements for Kasey Keller, James Riley and Tyson Wahl. None of these moves titillates the Sounders' fan base. They were all critical moves, but not overly sexy. In fact, most of the offseason moves ended up being about converting the Sounders' young core into the team's heart. This team will sink or thrive on their performance and leadership.
Sports careers arch. Physical development and mental understanding have different apogees. The sweet spot of a player's career is that window when the mental side reaches a professional level and the physical side hasn't deteriorated. The Sounders have been constructed to maximize the two years leading up to that point and this is the first year of this window. The Sounders invested in a strategy that establishes a revolving system of developing talent. The first true dividend year for the system is 2012.
Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans and Alvaro Fernandez are growing as players. Each year that they have been Sounders, their understanding and performance improved. All signs point to this trend continuing this season. The Sounders bet the franchise on the fact that they will continue to develop. They bet that the upgrade the fans want is quietly happening inside of each of these men. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the butterfly considers the beginning. The 2012 Sounders should be the soccer version of this koan.
But this philosophy doesn't simply surround these four central players. It permeates the team's approach to the roster. Watching the goal the Sounders' second team scored against
The Sounders second string this year has a caliber that no previous rendition of the Sounders roster has possessed. But more to this discussion, these four players along with Servando Carrasco and David Estrada all fit the mold of developing players learning their craft and entering their peak years. Players like Steve Zakuani and Mike Fucito also fit the mold. The offensive heart of both the first and second team are young upwardly mobile professionals who have not yet peaked. Most of them have a demonstrated history of building the mental aspect of their game along with the physical side.
Now look at the fight for the backend roster spots. Andrew Duran, Andy Rose and Alex Caskey have all been lauded by the coaching staff for their soccer minds. Miguel Montano is no longer a Sounder in part because his understanding of the game didn't match his physical prowess. The questions surrounding Michael Tetteh also relate to his understanding more than his physical skill. On this 30 man roster, emphasis is being placed on both how players are developing physically and mentally.
This approach is not without risk or detractors. It differs from the approach of a team like the LA Galaxy, who are the defending champions. Until the Sounders prove their concept on the pitch, it is still just a noble idea.
But nobility doesn't lie in the trappings of a knight. Putting someone in shiny armor on a white warhorse doesn't make them a knight. A knight is made by what happens inside of a man. Part of the transformation lies in what is expected of them. Part of it lies in what they expect of themselves. This team, these players and the fans have realistic expectations. The Sounders have bet on nobility. They have invested in the idea that young men can grow into a championship force. And from here on out, any player wanting to sit at the table will need to bring more than a 5 cent head to the table. Men like Osvaldo Alonso, won't tolerate anything less.