Bumped to get it out of the gameday clutter.
Every day in London, tourists flock to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. From the outside, the event creates a certain pomp and spectacle. Yet, for most guard shifts it represents the only real event and the only complex series of actions the soldiers perform. (Any soldier will tell you, their relief is the only 'event' they want to experience on guard duty.) The rest of a guard shift purrs along in a series of basic routines. All industries have similar changes. For some professions, like medicine, these shift changes occur a few times each day. In other endeavors, the changes may only happen every few years. Each time the guard changes, a certain level of disruption occurs. Watching the Sounders play their past two games I was reminded of this fact.
This offseason was marked by the Sounders changing the guard. This involved four distinct facets. The Sounders handed over the reigns of leadership to their young skilled core. They brought in Michael Gspurning, Adam Johansson, Eddie Johnson and Marc Burch. Four players who should be at the peak of their playing careers relative to the balance of their physical skills and mental understanding of the game. The Sounders also raised the standard of their bench by relying more on players they have been grooming and bringing in a group of skilled rookies. This gives the team a more balanced bench that has seen an improved quality level.
As with any changing of the guard, the Sounders are experiencing a certain level of disruption. Players like Fredy Montero and Osvaldo Alonso will not lead like their predecessor, Kasey Keller. They must learn what works for them. The existing roster must finesse their timing with both the new veterans and the rookies. The final steps of this process must occur during game play. Players like David Estrada must find their place in the mix as the coaches tinker with lineups. The hope would have been for this disruption to shake out over the first two months of the season. But the Sounder's injury woes and devoting preseason to the CCL quarterfinals meant that a portion of the upheaval still lingers. We've seen it over the past two games.
Saturday night was the first time all season that the Sounders were able to start all four of their key offensive weapons. The good and bad of this scenario set the script for the game. At times we got glimpses of the potential these players bring as a unit. Fredy and Eddie are beginning to gel. They both scored. The 2012 Sounders score more from the Foward position than any previous edition of the team. But we also saw the rust and the elusive quality that only more time on the pitch in games together is going to remedy. Alvaro Fernandez and Mauro Rosales need to learn to tango with the fowards. The dance entices, but doesn't stun. Yet.
The dance lacks the intricate precision and grace we ultimately expect. Working out the kinks in the build up costs scoring chances and leads to defensive lapses. Using rookies as the advanced center midfielder further adds complexity. Alex Caskey brings an interesting mix of creativity and deceptive shot making. But Andy Rose offers a better positional awareness and the size to help anchor the midfield. On Vancouver's first goal, Caskey, Rosales and Johansson became too compressed both laterally and more important, vertically. Vancouver was able to quickly bypass all three and the breakout was on. Throughout the second half Rose played with his head on a swivel and helped the team maintain it's overall shape. This is a teachable moment for both young men and part of the greater tumult as the team becomes a cohesive unit.
Cohesion and awareness take time. As good as the team has been, they have the potential to be much better. The pending US Open Cup tournament and later the CCL tournament will help the Sounders bench gain even more valuable experience. If anyone had said in January that Alex Caskey, Andy Rose, David Estrada, Brian Meredith and Zach Scott were going to all see significant starting minutes in the first two months of the season, the incredulity meter would have broken. If you would have said that they all looked solid in the process and that the team would have their current record, laughter would have insued. But this team has done exactly that. These men have performed in ways none of us predicted.
Much has been made over the past two weeks about how good the Sounders are going to be now that their 'A' team is getting healthier. The viewpoint presents inherent dangers. People expect too much too soon. Cohesion and awareness take time. This team is not going to peak now. Ideally they will peak in the championship rounds of the late season tournaments. No one wins the MLS Cup in May or June. And no single eleven man unit will carry the Sounders to the victory we all dream about. This team will flourish or flounder on their merits as a thirty man roster.
As you watch the Sounders play over the coming months, take a moment and bask in the spectacle of the changing of the guard. Watch how Fredy and Alonso come into their own as leaders. Relish the developing understanding between Flaco, Mauro and EJ. Cherish the joys of watching young men learn their craft and older players enjoy their final moments in the summer sun. The drama of sports lies in more than the scoresheet or the standings. It lives in the quiet burgeoning of understanding and precision. There is spectacle in the changing of the guard that is worthy of our attention.