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Big Questions facing Sounders: Off-season edition

The Sounders have some major issues facing them over the next few months, from who will lead to who will play goalkeeper.

Can Dempsey be a leader as well as a playmaker?
Can Dempsey be a leader as well as a playmaker?
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

As the dust settles on what has to be considered the most disappointing Seattle Sounders season to date, we have started to finally pick up the pieces. Unfortunately, there are some big pieces to attempt to put back together.

It all leads to what is now the most important off-season to date. Between now and March, the Sounders must figure out what went wrong and how to make sure they have it fixed before it happens again. There's a conference call today with Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer that may start addressing these questions, but in the meantime here's how we see things:

Who will lead?

To some degree, at least, the Sounders have asked this question every offseason. But it has never been more apparent that the Sounders lacked a clear focal point when it came to leadership on the field (oh, bet you didn't expect that!). Mauro Rosales wore the armband most often and the Sounders spoke a lot about how different players were capable of taking a command when necessary, but things went off the rails so often that it's a question that must be asked.

Rosales may or may not be back, but either way, his role will inevitably be reduced. Brad Evans has started to fill the void, but until recently he also seemed somewhat reluctant to take the armband. It's also important to note that simply being called "captain" doesn't mean they are doing actual leading, and it certainly doesn't have to be just one player, either. It probably needs to happen organically, too.

Clint Dempsey would be a natural fit, not just because he's the most accomplished player, but also because he serves in that capacity for the United States national team. But he's another player who I'm not entirely sure wants to fill that role.

That the Sounders are still searching for this -- after identifying it following the disaster in Sandy two years ago -- doesn't speak well of them. The answer may already be on the roster, or it might not, but either way someone or some group of players need to step up in this regard.

Off the field (hey, I'm getting there), it's an issue as well. Sigi Schmid may or may not be back, but something has to change in this regard as well. The same problems seem to be popping up each season and they are popping up at the absolute worst times. Somehow, this has to be fixed.

The problems of the past seem to be repeating themselves and Schmid is increasingly sounding as if he doesn't know the answers. If he's back, he needs to articulate through words and/or actions how this is going to change.

What is Dempsey's role?

There has been much to debate as to just how good of a move signing Dempsey turned out to be. Obviously, looked at only as a snapshot of his 12 Sounders appearances, it looks bad, quite bad. The league's highest paid player had just one goal and one assist in 921 minutes with the Sounders, who went just 3-5-1 in his starts. Clearly, that wasn't the return the Sounders were hoping for.

Although the stated goal of signing Dempsey was to help bring a MLS Cup to Seattle, it was also done with more than half a season in mind. By all indications, Dempsey will be the player around whom the Sounders build their team for the foreseeable future and there's every reason to think he's as good a player as any in MLS to build around.

The question is how to build that team? It's possible that they could stick with the diamond, and a forward combination of Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins would certainly make that a very intriguing idea. But the diamond always struck me as a bit of a temporary fix, something designed to work around Dempsey that could be thrown together on a relative whim. If it is the longterm solution, the Sounders probably need to find some better complementary parts. Most glaringly, they probably need an upgrade over Adam Moffat, who never seemed entirely comfortable in his role as a left-sided box-to-box midfielder.

The diamond also isn't the most dynamic formation. I have to imagine that given a full offseason to prepare, we're more likely to see something more like a 4-2-3-1 that they ran when Fredy Montero was here. Dempsey would have more license to get forward and the formation can be a bit more fluid, featuring more attack-minded midfielders. Might Johnson excel in one of those roles? If Steve Zakuani can get healthy, he'd obviously be a prime candidate.

In any case, the Sounders should be extremely focused on putting Dempsey in a position where he can truly shine.

How does the forward situation get resolved?

You may have heard Johnson wants a raise. You may have also noticed that the Sounders might not have a ton of room to give him one as big as he probably wants, especially if Martins is still around. Now, I'm not really expecting Martins to go anywhere, as the Sounders are pretty much "pot-committed" at this point. Unlike other DPs, the Sounders spent a significant amount of money just to have the ability to sign Martins (reportedly €3 million) and still reportedly owe him about $5 million over the next couple seasons.

Add it all up, along with Dempsey's money, and the Sounders could be in a situation where they have a ton of money wrapped up in three players who still haven't really played together. I suppose stranger things have happened, but I just don't think all three players are back and right now it looks like the odd man out might be Johnson, by far the Sounders' best offensive performer down the stretch this year.

So maybe the Sounders do bring all three back. Can Johnson and Martins figure out how to play together at forward? Does Johnson move out to more of a wide position? There are solutions, which come with huge potential upsides, but are not without significant risk.

How do you straighten out the central defense?

At their best, the Sounders were among the best defensive teams in the league. That wasn't an accident. But the central defenders were exposed in the worst way over the team's final eight games or so. One of Patrick Ianni, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Djimi Traore can probably count on starting next year, and that's not the worst thing in the world. There needs to be a different partner with them, though.

Sounders fans have long been asking for a "shut-down" defender, whatever that means. I'm not sure that guy is going to be available, but they do need to find someone who the defense can be built around or can be a real leader in the back. Might George John finally become available now that FC Dallas has a change in management and is stacked with young center backs? Could the Vancouver Whitecaps be talked into trading Jay DeMerit's rights? There are surely guys out there, both in MLS and abroad who can fill this glaring need.

The Sounders allowed 42 goals this year, by far their worst defensive performance in their five years and nine more than they allowed last year. The most glaring difference was the loss of Jeff Parke, who was never adequately replace. That needs to become a priority.

Who is the starting goalkeeper?

I'll admit to some bias, but I genuinely like both Michael Gspurning and Marcus Hahnemann. They are, quite honestly, two of the nicer and most genuine people I've met during my nearly 15 years of covering professional athletes. Based on that alone, I'd love to see both of them back next year.

I also happen to think they are both very capable goalkeepers, who were more the victims than the cause of the Sounders' defensive collapse.

That said, I think one or both of them won't be back next year, and I really hope it's at least one.

If Gspurning returns, it has to be as the unquestioned starter. He makes too much money to potentially be someone's backup and probably isn't interested in coming back under such an uncertain situation anyway. When asked about it after Thursday's game, Gspurning seemed a bit wistful, like he would prefer to return but unsure of what will happen.

If Hahnemann returns, I imagine it will be with some assurances that he will at least be allowed to compete for the starter's job. He doesn't need to prove anything to anybody and probably ticked off a bunch of items on his "pro goalkeeper bucket list" this season. The only reason for him to go through the tortures of another offseason -- and he's given indications that's the biggest issue -- is he thinks it's for a real purpose. Having a chance to start for his hometown team would qualify, I'd think.

I have to imagine Hahnemann wouldn't just be handed the job, though. There would probably need to be another MLS-caliber goalkeeper on the roster, meaning another move would have to be made. Maybe someone like Vancouver's Brad Knighton or the the Crew's Andy Gruenebaum.

These are some significant issues, to be sure. But the framework for a very good team is still here. Let's hope the Sounders get it right.

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