During their end-of-season press conference last year, Adrian Hanauer and Sigi Schmid suggested there was a good chance some big moves could be on their way. Despite the Seattle Sounders advancing farther in the MLS Cup playoff than they ever had before, there was a sense that the season had not gone as planned. The big reason was the way it ended, with a 3-0 loss to the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals creating an almost impossible hole from which they needed to climb.
There were rumblings that as many as all three Designated Players could be gone by the start of 2013 and that other key parts could be moved as well. It wasn't quite that dramatic but Jeff Parke's rights were traded to the Philadelphia Union; Fredy Montero went out on loan to Colombian club Millonarios; Christian Tiffert was bought out; and Adam Johansson was simply cut. There were other moves, of course, but those four players had all been starters and considered key contributors. How the Sounders replaced them would effectively determine how this past year played out.
He'll always be Sparkles to us
To a degree, the Sounders didn't have a lot to say about Parke's departure. The team's top defender wanted to move closer to family and the Sounders were willing to facilitate the move. The plan, originally, was to re-sign Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni and go into the season with them as the starting duo. There was reason to think it could work, as Hurtado was looking more and more like his old self and Ianni has always been at his best when given extended runouts. The risk was that both have battled injuries.
So, when Ianni managed to break his foot during a training exercise early in preseason it wasn't necessarily a huge shock. The good news is that Ianni's injury was a major impetus to signing Djimi Traore, a European veteran. Early on, the returns were great as Traore looked to be every bit a ready-made replacement for Parke. But as the season wore on and the minutes piled up, the Sounders were stretched.
Four players received at least seven starts at center back -- with Zach Scott getting 11 -- and the Sounders used five different starting pairings. Traore and Hurtado ended up being the most common pairing, and they only started together 16 times in 37 matches. This worked fine early on, as the Sounders allowed 17 goals in their first 15 matches and were among the best defenses in the league as late as the end of September. But after allowing 18 goals in their final eight and giving up more goals than they had in any of their previous four seasons, it's undeniable that upgrading the defensive personnel has to be a top priority.
You could certainly argue that the problems were more complex than losing Parke, and I think you'd be right. But it's hard to imagine this defense falling apart the way it did if he had been here. From a strictly numerical perspective, Hurtado ended up getting the most minutes of any Sounders center back with 2,243. That was about 300 minutes short of Parke provided a year earlier.
Fredy, you stole our hearts
By far the most controversial move of the offseason was the decision to loan out Montero to Millonarios. It's still not entirely clear whether the Sounders or Montero initiated the move, but it left a gaping hole in the offense either way. Obafemi Martins was expected to not only fill that hole but even take the Sounders up a notch.
Early on, it looked like he would do just that as he scored six goals in his first 10 games. But after effectively skipping an offseason to join the Sounders, Martins wore down considerably. Various injuries kept Martins out of 10 of the Sounders' final 16 matches and he scored just once during that stretch.
Maybe even more than the actual production, the Sounders really seemed to simply miss Montero's constant presence. For all his streakiness, Montero was among the Sounders' healthiest players during his four years in Rave Green. In fact, Martins missed more games in the season's final three months than Montero missed during his entire MLS career.
Lamar Neagle helped pick up some of that slack, but not enough to overcome shortcomings elsewhere. Eddie Johnson, who seemed poised for a breakout year, ended up scoring four fewer goals than he had a year earlier and also missed considerable time with the national team. The Sounders also sorely missed Montero's ability to strike from outside the box, where the Sounders scored just one goal all season.
On paper, the Sounders seemed to do a reasonable job of trying to replace Montero. But the sum of the parts didn't cut it. That Montero is now tearing it up in Portugal is only making it worse.
German experiment short-lived
When Tiffert was signed, ostensibly as a replacement for Alvaro Fernandez, the thinking was that the Sounders had finally found the two-way center mid they had always been looking for. But Tiffert seemed to struggle in adapting to MLS and often gravitated toward the wing. Still, it seemed like a safe bet that he would return.
But then Tiffert was mysteriously left home when the team traveled to Arizona and the "Vietnamese tacos" meme was born. Initially, Tiffert was replaced by Shalrie Joseph, which many were highly skeptical of. Turns out, they were mostly right. Joseph came into camp out of shape and carrying an injury, two things that dogged him throughout the year. That he was a very good passer when he was fit enough to get onto the field showed that the Sounders weren't completely crazy, but his complete inability to stay healthy was among the most frustrating developments of the year.
Joseph did prove to be useful in one way, though: His willingness to restructure his contract enabled the Sounders to sign Clint Dempsey. It's entirely likely the Sounders could have figured out some way to sign Dempsey even if Tiffert had still been here, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on this and consider this a bit of a wash in terms of potential longterm benefit.
Make way for the kid
Johansson came to the Sounders with so much promise. Here was a Swedish international who seemed to be everything the Sounders had ever wanted in a full back. He could get up and down the line reasonably well and was billed as a great passer. Thing was, he didn't stand up to the physical side quite as well as hoped and had a tough time staying healthy, to boot.
Still, he was on pace for a second year until DeAndre Yedlin emerged as a potential starter. This is one area the Sounders can definitely pat themselves on the back. Yedlin was arguably an upgrade defensively over Johansson and might be as good as him already offensively. Even if we simply chalk 2013 up as a learning year, this was one move that clearly paid off.
Overall, it wasn't good
By my count, the Sounders went 1-2-1 on these moves. They might not have been the only things that contributed to what was undeniably the first obvious year of regression, but they were key components. Moving forward, there might be a few lessons.
1. If you're trading in an older player for a younger one, that's a move with limited downside, but moves in the opposite direction have little margin for error. Yedlin-for-Johansson was a clear winner, while Martins-for-Montero and Joseph-for-Tiffert were not.
2. Quantity is not always better than quality. I don't think the Sounders ever really planned on replacing Parke with one player, but turning a position over to a committee is always going to be a tough sell. I'm sure the hope is always that one player will emerge from that committee and stake claim to the position, but that's a gamble too, as we saw.
Admittedly, these are not exactly earth-shattering discoveries. But it does illustrate how blowing up the roster this year is not necessarily a guarantee of success next year.