A year ago, the Seattle Sounders opened their season on March 15. This year, they will essentially do so eight days earlier. On paper that might not seem like a huge difference.
But unlike last year when they opened against a LA Galaxy team that was in the same stage of its season, the Sounders' first opponent will be Santos Laguna, a Mexican Primera side that will have already played nine matches. Adding even more importance to the game is that while they could afford to lose last year's season-opener, as it was just one of 34 games they'd play in their regular season, this is a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal. A loss on March 7 would effectively end their aspirations of winning a continental title.
All of this had added some significant urgency to the preseason. In addition to lining up some preseason friendlies against Mexican teams (at least one of which will apparently be played in Cancun), coach Sigi Schmid also suggested identifying starters has been accelerated.
"We’ve been trying, as well, at times to really make sure that we keep the guys that we think are in consideration for that starting group against Santos playing together a little bit more than we would do normally this early in preseason, just so that they get their rhythm of play down a little quicker," Schmid said.
At least a few of those starters should be plainly obvious. Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales, Brad Evans, Osvaldo Alonso, Adam Johansson, Jeff Parke, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Michael Gspurning will all be in the starting lineup barring some kind of unforeseen development. That leaves competition for three spots, and I'm not even sure there are that many.
Over the next few weeks, we'll be taking a closer look at each of these battles, but in the meantime, here's an overview:
Alvaro Fernandez is the obvious choice. He might be the Sounders most clinical finisher. If he's fully fit by March 7, he'll be starting. There are reasons to think he might not be able to get to midseason form as quick as the other players, though.
Throughout his Sounders tenure, Fernandez has been a slow starter. During his first half season, he never was able to get fully fit. Last year, he wasn't allowed to go 90 minutes until the eighth match of the season. This year, he may have been one of the players identified as being behind the others. This is all speculation, but if there's one starter who Schmid is less likely to assume is fit, Fernandez is probably the guy.
So who would start in his place? Lamar Neagle is an obvious candidate. During somewhat limited minutes a year ago, he showed an explosiveness rarely seen around these parts. His five goals and two assists came in just 1,008 minutes. The knock against him would be how he sometimes disappeared in big games such as the first leg of the playoff against Real Salt Lake.
The other candidate would be Christian Sivebaek. It may be over-thinking things, but Sivebaek is the player Santos Laguna will most likely know the least about. He also has a size-speed combination that is not exactly common in the Mexican Primera. Top it off with the fact that he's been among the more impressive players in camp so far and he's a definitely dark-horse candidate.
Leo Gonzalez has to have the inside track for a couple simple reasons: He has more experience playing against Latin American opponents and Schmid is more familiar with him. Toward the end of last season, Gonzalez seemed to have beat out Tyson Wahl as the starter. Based on this offseason, it would seem the Sounders have a fair amount of faith in him.
Still, they traded up in the Re-Entry Draft to pick Marc Burch and, more importantly, it's been an almost open secret that they are competing. Buch probably gets the offensive edge, while Gonzalez is the more sound defender. It could come down the philosophy.
Unlike the other two positions, the second forward really doesn't have an incumbent starter. Mike Fucito received more starts than any other player there last year, but he wasn't established enough to get the call during the first leg of last year's playoff against RSL. He might be in better shape than any other player on the team right now, as that photo at the top can attest, but this won't just be about fitness. Fucito does have some quality performances against Mexican opponents, too.
Sammy Ochoa has more experience playing in Mexico than any other player on the team and that surely counts for something. Of course, that history hasn't been particularly successful, so maybe I'm overselling that aspect.
If there's a wild-card here, it might be Sivebaek. It's tempting to say Babayele Sodade is in the running too, but it's hard for me to imagine him showing enough at this point to already be practicing with first-teamers. As good as Sivebaek has been, it's equally hard for me to see him adequately adjusting to a new position so quickly.