TUKWILA — The start of preseason tends to be pretty gradual. Players roll in over the course of a week and even the first training sessions are sometimes little more than jog-arounds for the sake of the fans in attendance.
This year is a bit different. Although players first started reporting about a week ago, by the time the Sounders made themselves publicly accessible on Saturday they were seemingly at full speed or at least something very close to it. They also apparently came into camp in better fitness than in previous seasons despite being forced to sit through one of their longest-ever offseasons. It’s a good thing because there’s precious little time to waste.
The Sounders will only have about four weeks of prep before their first competitive match on Feb. 4 and that is a win-or-go-home endeavor in the Club World Cup. In addition to the Club World Cup being played nearly two weeks earlier in the calendar than Conacacaf Champions League usually is, the margins are even thinner as the Sounders won’t don’t have the luxury of a second leg to overcome a slow start. There also isn’t a fifth-place game this year, as there had been in previous iterations of this tournament.
On the positive side, there’s apparently an added sense of urgency.
“The timing allows you to do different things,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “You have to be cognizant of their load and injury, but the players themselves are excited about it. They are talking about it, excited to have an opportunity to be on a world stage. This is an opportunity to win that first game and who knows who we’ll end up playing. They are super fired up about it and that makes our jobs easier.”
Also making Schmetzer’s job a bit easier is that the roster is relatively stable and experienced. The top 14 players in terms of minutes played from last year are back in 2023 and the only notable losses are Jimmy Medranda and Will Bruin. The Sounders also will be getting back midfielders João Paulo and Obed Vargas, both of whom missed large chunks of last season with injuries.
The only notable addition at this point is Héber from New York City FC, someone whose not only a veteran of the game but a player with extensive experience in international competitions.
But even if the Sounders do get bounced early from Morocco, this should all help them get off to a better MLS regular-season start. That begins on Feb. 26.
“The first few days have been more lively than a preseason I’ve been apart of in a long time,” Sounders GM Craig Waibel said. “I think that’s due to the extended time off, but I don’t want to celebrate that time off or do it again. I’m glad we got it this year.”
Some other takeaways from training:
- Asked if any of the young players had seemed to take a significant step forward over the offseason, Schmetzer identified Antonio Herrera. The 18-year-old midfielder was quietly signed by the Tacoma Defiance last season following a call-up to the Mexico U18 team and is generally considered the Sounders’ top wide attacking prospect.
- Best I could tell everyone under a first-team contract was out at training with the exceptions of goalkeeper Andrew Thomas and midfielder Reed Baker-Whiting. Thomas is apparently dealing with an injury, while Baker-Whiting is with the U19 United States national team.
- On the flipside, I didn’t notice any veteran trialists. There were a few unsigned players from the academy, however, with the most notable probably being goalkeeper Wyatt Nelson who recently committed to UCLA. I don’t think there’s much chance of him forgoing college, but it might be worth watching especially if Thomas’ injury proves to be serious.
- Craig Waibel addressed a handful of offseason rumors, effectively confirming the Sounders’ interest in Japan forward Shuto Machino and Pumas forward Juan Dinenno. Notably, both players are likely outside the Sounders’ budget but they’re names to keep an eye on. He also suggested the team will make more frequent use of loans, especially on players they feel have outgrown MLS Next Pro but aren’t quite ready to contribute on the first team. My guess is someone like Sota Kitahara is a good candidate for such a move.
- The Sounders will finish off training in Southern Spain, spending the last week of preseason there before flying to Morocco. We don’t yet have exact details on that.
What I’m hearing
Another name to keep an eye is Baker-Whiting. I previously reported that he spent a chunk of the offseason training with Bundesliga outfit Freiburg FC. The training stint apparently went very well. But even if the two sides are able to work out some sort of deal, he can’t move until he turns 18 in March. That means he’d be ineligible to officially join Freiburg until the summer transfer window.
My suspicion is that he’ll probably be given a chance to get some first-team minutes — possibly as a fullback where he’s playing with the U19s — or else be sent somewhere on a short-term loan.
Going in the opposite direction, the Sounders are apparently close to securing the return of Ivorian winger Georgi Minoungou. The 20-year-old impressed Tacoma Defiance coaches last year and came on late to contribute two goals and five assists. But he was here on loan and his parent club’s asking price was apparently a bit high. Well, it now looks like there’s a good chance he’ll be back with Defiance either on another loan or possibly a full transfer.