Let's play a little game, since it's a bye week. Imagine for a moment that it's July and the Sounders are healthy and their new players have been integrated into the fold. One way of gauging the strength of a team is to look at its potential for growth and improvement using just the players it currently has on the roster. If we look at Sporting KC, how much better can they be using the players they currently have? What happens if we ask the same question of the Sounders? Just how good are they potentially?
What do we know right now?
A number of Seattle players are currently playing as well as they ever have for the team and a few players have significantly elevated their game play in 2012.
Fredy Montero, Version 4 is a beast. He has improved his hold up play, distribution and leadership, while maintaining the same creativity and goal potential. He may not have scored yet, but his play says that it's only a matter of time before he goes on a tear. Once some of the other players return to the lineup and start absorbing pressure, spaces will open around him and this will unleash the new version to wreak havoc.
David Estrada has elevated his game this season with the move to forward and the Sounders now have a player whose work rate matches that of Sebastian LeToux. He also has a nose for goal and makes timely runs. If he continues to evolve through the season the Sounders have found a diamond on their existing roster.
Patrick Ianni and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado have both returned to starting caliber form. With Jeff Parke, the three players give Seattle a solid core at CB. They also anchor the defense and stabilize Seattle's back line, working off of each other and absorbing or diverting pressure. This bodes well.
Alvaro Fernandez continues to develop and his game this year is more mature and settled. He has been one of the most creative components of the team in the absence of Mauro Rosales. After getting his hand slapped by the league for embellishment, he has focused his efforts on physical performance and less on dramatic performance. This focus is paying dividends.
Zach Scott is another player who has significantly elevated his game. He now has a much more rounded skill set and integrates better with the offensive flow of the game. His long throw skills and heading skills add to the overall offensive threat of the team. His passing and decision making also appear to be better. No one will mistake him for the next coming of Lionel Messi or even Adam Johansson. But having a player with his defensive prowess, positional flexibility and some offense as a bench player makes the Sounders stronger at this position than they have ever been.
Brad Evans has also found his place in the Sounders scheme. A while back a number of the staff were discussing what Brad Evans brings and I likened his play to the role of the shock absorbers on a car. He doesn't steer the offense or provide the place where the defense meets the road, but he makes both the steering and the tires function better. Having him healthy and soaking up pressure and transitioning the play through the midfield makes the team work better. His aerial play in the midfield and late runs add to the package.
Osvaldo Alonso, Mauro Rosales, Servando Carrasco, Roger Levsque and Leo Gonzalez are providing the level of skill that we have come to expect from them. Mauro's knock has been felt, but, when he has played, his level of creativity and leadership continue to define what the Sounders are capable of accomplishing. Leo fits into the current scheme as a role player, which suits him and his abilities. Ozzie is still Ozzie. He stalks the defensive midfield with determination and panache. His level of play is its own superlative. Carrasco provides a solid back up and defensive substitution. Roger lays his heart on the line every time he takes the pitch. He may have lost a step, but not any of his drive or any of his understanding of the flow of the game.
Michael Gspurning and Marc Burch are providing the performance the team expected. Neither player mimics the player they replaced. Burch provides continuity in the run of play while his predecessor offered set piece skills. Gspurning plays a different style of Keeper than Kasey Keller and offers a very different personality to the team. Keller was the heart of the early MLS Sounders. His leadership and experience permeated his play. Gspurning is a solid professional who has different strengths and is asked to provide different things. His comfort with the ball at his feet is a nice addition to the transition and three clean sheets are nice too. These players are adding to the fluidity of the Sounders possession style defense and this possession emphasis is helping Patrick Ianni and Leo Gonzalez better fit into the overall team play.
Which brings us to the players who are still offering just a hint of things to come. Adam Johansson teased us all through preseason and the CCL QFs before he went down hurt. He paired up brilliantly with Mauro Rosales and the two looked like they had been playing together for years after only a couple of weeks. His forays into the offensive end of the pitch create both offense and defensive shifts. It will take the team a few weeks to get everyone on the same page, but once they do, Johansson represents one of the biggest planned upgrades and a key component to the Sounders potential.
The other big piece of the puzzle is the integration of Eddie Johnson into the game. Put aside the emotional aspects of his trade and look at what the team realistically needs from him to be successful as a team. As much as the fans may want a star striker, the team does not need Eddie Johnson to be that star. The team is using $100K in cap space for his services as well as the loss of Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito. They need Eddie to be a solid $100K piece of the offensive puzzle. Specifically, they need him to stretch defenses vertically, provide hold up play and aerial threat, pull defenders away from the other creative offensive players and to finish the opportunities that other players create. Anything else that he provides is gravy. If he evolves into a star, then great. But the team doesn't need him to carry the offense. They need him to integrate with it. Now ask yourself honestly if you think that the Eddie Johnson we have seen can fulfill that role? If he can, then his involvement in the lineup will improve the Sounders as a team. My honest answer to that question is that this is well within his current capabilities.
The other new pieces also provide intrigue. Christian Sivebaek is rough but he has some serious potential. Steve Zakuani may not break the starting line up but if he evolves into a dangerous bench option, the contrast that he provides will cause opponents tactical fits when they have to prepare both for him and for Flaco. Alex Caskey has shown serious pacing and set piece skills in his limited time. The fact that he's come in and worked his way into the 18 already is a nice surprise. Anyone else notice that Sigi selected Andy Rose for last Saturday's 18 over Carrasco? Then there is the raw speed of Cordell Cato lurking in the wings and the intriguing possibilities of Andrew Duran. Michael Seamon has also shown some recent life in light of being passed on the depth chart by the other central midfielders. The team appears to have four serviceable keepers and only Sammy Ochoa and Michael Tetteh are still struggling.
The Big Picture
Stop for a moment now and consider the potential line up card:
Starting 11: Montero, Johnson, Flaco, Mauro, Evans, Alonso, Johansson, Leo, Ianni, Hurtado and Gspurning
Primary Bench: Estrada, Zakuani, Sivebaek, Caskey, Carrasco, Scott, Burch, Parke, Meredith & Weber (Yes, that's more 7. These are the players that I expect could regularly rotate in and out of the 18.)
Waiting in the Wings: Levesque, Ochoa, Rose, Seamon, Cato and Duran
The Starting line up could be an MLS force but the telling factor for me is the quality of the bench. It is balanced and offers a wealth of tactical options. If this team can stay healthy, they have incredible potential. But health is the caveat here. Until the team can put all of the pieces out onto the board simultaneously, the Sounders are just a strong team. If they get healthy, I think they will be an elite team with just the pieces they already have in the cupboard.