This week's trip to Tucson, Ariz. marks a watershed moment in the 2013 Sounders FC preseason. The national team players have all returned and the team now begins the serious work of becoming a cohesive unit in preparation for MLS First Kick (March 2) and the CCL Quarterfinals (March 6). It is the homestretch of preseason. Along the way the coaches will need to make hard decisions about who will make the final roster. This drama will unfold over five preseason games and three weeks of practices.
Most of the roster focus this offseason has been on the Starting 11. With the departure of Jeff Parke and the Fredy Montero loan to Millonarios, everyone has wondered who will fill those two roster positions. But another battle is being quietly waged in training camp. A handful of hopeful men are battling for a chance to wear the Rave Green. Some of them are older players in the twilight of their careers. Some are young men looking to break into the MLS ranks. But they all share a desire to don the Sounders' shield and they are all facing uphill odds. Dave and Liviu have already scouted the remaining trialists and drafted players. But just how many slots are available and what do these slots mean for the team?
The Short Term
The team has 23 returning players including Andrew Duran and Babayele Sodade. Barring catastrophe or trade, we can reasonably expect these men to make the team. Lamar Neagle has returned and should also be expected to make the final roster. DeAndre Yedlin and Eriq Zavaleta take two more roster spots bringing the total roster up to 26. MLS roster rules limit the Sounders to a maximum of 30 players, which leaves roughly four roster spots open.
It is still possible for the team to make a trade or find another trialist. If the team makes a two-for-one trade like last year's deal for Eddie Johnson, this would open another slot. Another trade like the one that netted Neagle would subtract a slot. Fluid situations define preseason. But for clarity's sake, let's assume that the Sounders have four slots.
This year's roster has the luxury of being balanced. Every position on the pitch is at least two deep with just those 26 players playing their primary positions. Some of that depth is untested, rookie depth. Some of the depth is filled by professional journeymen rather than MLS All Star caliber players.
The remaining four roster spots can therefore be used to elevate the quality of the Starting 11, provide veteran leadership and injury insurance or to build for the future. In an ideal world, we would all like to see the team go out and get four more starters. But this is the MLS and the salary cap looms. The simple truth is that it looks increasingly likely that only the open DP slot will go to a clear Starting 11 caliber player. The Sounders will carefully select their new DP. Anything is possible but I expect this slot to stay open until the summer transfer window.
Three slots to go. One of those three is liable to go to a CB candidate and we can reasonably hedge our bets and say that it is likely to be an experienced veteran. With Zaveletta and Duran, the team has two young prospects already in the fold and they need more CB depth. Currently the team has two veteran CB trialists in Djimi Traore and Mikael Silvestre. Realistically they are fighting for a single slot.
Two Golden Tickets remain. It's probably best to think of these as wild cards. They represent an opportunity for the team to develop two players. The team is apt to select the two players the coaches think are most ready to contribute regardless of position. More depth at forward would be nice and there are currently three Forwards competing in this pool of talent. But there is also a Keeper, four Midfielders and a Left Back vying for a spot as well. Skill, attitude, soccer intelligence, versatility, potential and position will all factor into the decision.
In an interview earlier this spring, Sigi Schmid described the process of winnowing preseason prospects. He said the coaches look for moments of quality. If those moments aren't there, the team releases the prospect. For the players who show moments of promise, the team works to see if they can help the player string those moments together into sequences. Developing those sequences is the next step in the evaluation process. How the player fits in and responds to coaching become key elements in determining which players stay with the team. With each evolution of preseason camp the prospect pool shifts. The prospects that started their Sounders experience at the outset of camp have already distinguished themselves. But now the team gets to see the final piece of the puzzle. How will these players mesh with the existing roster in game conditions? For these men, their future hangs in the balance. May the best men win.
The Big Picture
It is easy to focus of Fredy and Jeff and claim that the Sounders haven't improved during this offseason. But that simply isn't true. The truth lies buried in the story of the remaining roster spots and what they mean historically. Each year of the Sounders existence the number of available slots at the short end of the roster has dwindled. This year they really only have three. Ask yourself, "Why?"
Any fan of collegiate athletics or minor league professional sports teams knows that even within the context of these ‘developmental leagues' there are perennial powerhouse programs. These programs reload while others rebuild. The programs succeed at identifying and developing talent. When one class graduates to the next level, there is another class of relatively unheralded and unknown players who step into their places and carry on the winning tradition. These players become the next generation of stars the team must somehow replace. Every year the cycle repeats.
The Sounders are retaining and developing players. The list includes the obvious culprits like the Sounders draft picks. The Sounders currently have four first round picks (Steve Zakuani, David Estrada, Andrew Duran and Eriq Zavaleta), three second round picks (Servando Carrasco, Babayele Sodade and Dylan Remick) and three established supplemental draft picks (Josh Ford, Alex Caskey and Andy Rose) in camp. There are also four supplemental draft picks from this year's class vying for one of the coveted remaining spots. They have their first HGP in DeAndre Yedlin. But they also have players whose careers they have shepherded. Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Zach Scott, Patrick Ianni and Lamar Neagle are all better players now than when they first joined the team.
This stability yields benefits. These players are familiar with the Sounders' system, the team's expectations and each other. Their salaries tend to be cost effective relative to the cap. A team gets effective depth and more quality for a fraction of the cost of bringing established players onto the team. But more than that, it creates a team culture. Character, drive and discipline permeate this list. These players might not start but they can be guaranteed to push whoever does. They will give everything they have when they take the pitch. These players are also maturing within that Sounders culture. They are no longer raw recruits. It is a stability that isn't possible until a team has been around for four or five years.
The team has also systematically improved the balance of the overall roster. This is the first year where the team is two deep at every roster position with players who will be playing their primary position. The team has consistently raised the quality of the overall roster as well. This year's keeper corps is the strongest the team has ever seen. Position by position they are attempting to elevate the overall quality of the team. There are restrictions imposed by the salary cap. Sometimes there won't be a direct replacement. Fredy and Jeff provided specific skill sets. The team will miss their production. But there are other players who will pick up the slack. They won't be Fredy and Jeff. They will be their own men and the team's dynamic will shift to accommodate the differences. It is precisely like a college program that loses a star to graduation and must fill the void. The new player isn't the same. But in the powerhouse programs, he often steps in and carves his own niche in the team's lore.
The Seattle Sounders are a powerhouse program within MLS. They haven't attained their lofty goals and sometimes we get spoiled as fans. But the 2013 edition of the team is shaping up to solidify the architecture of the team's culture in exciting ways. The short end of the bench has gotten very narrow and that is a very good thing.