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First Practice observations

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The defense of MLS Cup 2016 started on a cold Tuesday in front of fans and media.

Sounders FC brought out the MLS Cup during their traditional First Practice
Dave Clark

After a very short offseason, Seattle Sounders veterans and trialists alike stepped back onto the practice field vying for spots on a team set to defend its very first MLS Cup.

There were a few major pieces missing, namely Brad Evans, Chad Marshall, Stefan Frei, Nico Lodeiro, and Jordan Morris. A combination of injury, USMNT call ups, and a necessary extra break (Nico) were the reasons these players weren’t practicing.

Designated player Clint Dempsey fully trained with the team for the first time in months, and he looked fantastic. He participated in all team activities, and there was nothing in his play or demeanor that showed any issues. Yes, the doctors and medical staff are monitoring his heart, but the rest of him looked great.

There was a moment of brilliance when Dempsey, Oniel Fisher, Victor Mansaray, and Harry Shipp worked the ball with excellent spacing on offense in a 9v9 drill and finished with Mansaray scoring after an audacious no-look Dempsey pass split two defenders to Shipp, who found an overlapping Fisher. There was excellent attacking play from this group, and Clint was right in the middle of it, controlling everything.

There were several new players, acquired via draft, homegrown player contracts, academy, or trialist. One familiar face was Steve Zakuani, and he looked good enough to at least make me reconsider his broadcasting career.

Aaron Kovar took a knock, Osvaldo Alonso trained alone on the side all day, and there were several younger guys who didn’t join in all team drills.

A rather fun group of 7 in a 5v2 keep-away game consisted of Zakuani, Dempsey, Fisher, Jordy Delem, Joevin Jones, Mansaray, and Nouhou Tolo. It was rather intense, and I could hear Dempsey talking smack to Mansaray from across the practice field, with the latter returning the favor to Zakuani a bit later when he got the better of the former Sounders star. These guys got into it, but all players seemed to be having a great time; it was a unique group of ages and personalities that we don’t often see training together. This fit the theme of the session that saw older, established players working with young or new faces. It was all very jovial and welcoming, yet still intense.

I’ll have more on Shipp and Bruin this weekend, but both looked very good at first glance and should be important pieces going forward. They easily stood out among the many new faces.

Quick notes on new guys: Oduro is very small, but aggressive. His touch was shaky at times, but he was decisive defensively in the middle and tackled much stronger than his stature might suggest. Defensively his first step and instincts are also quite good. Wingo was solid, didn’t make any mistakes, but wasn’t flashy. Adekoya, on the other hand, stands out with his incredibly speed. One time he made up a 10-yard deficit on defense in a stride and a half – his speed was impressive enough to make me say “WOW” out loud on multiple occasions. Draft pick Jake Stovall was very vocal, and it was nice to see a young, new player take a leadership role early. Even the very young academy players looked good playing with guys twice their age, and they didn’t look overwhelmed.

One new player that was hard to miss was trialist Gale Agbossoumonde. He was easily the biggest player out there, and while he doesn’t exactly make Torres look svelte, Gale is bigger than Roman. He has a wide frame that belies soft feet. He wasn’t involved a ton in 1v1 situations where it was easy to rate him, but his positioning was excellent. His lateral movement will be put to the test as the week progresses, but one thing he was very good at doing was matching up physically with larger guys like Will Bruin, whom he managed to muscle off the ball on at least one occasion.

Cristian Roldan looks to have left the rookie camp completely, making veteran plays and showing the composure that makes him the incumbent starter in preseason. He played with quiet intensity, staying within himself and safely keeping possession for his side on a consistent basis.

As a side note, I was able to talk to new assistant coach Gonzalo Pineda after practice, and while very serious about coaching, his eyes absolutely lit up and a huge smile came across his face when I asked about Roldan. He noted with pride the improvement the young midfielder made last season and said that Roldan needs to work on turning that 3-goal season into a 6-goal season. Pineda envisions Roldan as an even more dynamic player going forward in 2017 and beyond.