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Moods high for start to Sounders training camp

Craig Waibel indicated the core of the roster is set.

Dave Clark / Sounder at Heart

TUKWILA — There was a steady rain and plenty of energy at the Seattle Sounders’ first public preseason training session on Saturday. That was due at least in part to a youth soccer tournament that brought thousands of people to Starfire Sports Complex, but a solid contingent of chanting and flag-waving Sounders fans were there as well.

It seemed like a solid way to start off what will be the Sounders’ final year at Starfire. They plan to move across the freeway to Sounders FC Center at Longacres in time for the 2024 preseason.

“One of the things we’ll miss about this facility is walking out on a Saturday with all these kids,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer told a group of about 20 media members. “The players enjoyed themselves.”

Hitting the ground running is especially important this year, as this will be the Sounders’ shortest-ever preseason. There’s only about a month between now and the first competitive match on Feb. 4 in the Club World Cup. The final week of this preseason will be spent in Spain, Schmetzer confirmed.

The Sounders will be treating that tournament just as seriously as they do every other competition they enter.

“This is a competitive tournament,” Schmetzer said. “We’re going there to try to win the first game and if we can do that, we’ll use the same approach for the second. We’re not going there on vacation, I’ll tell you that.”

Injury updates

One of the most pressing questions heading into this preseason was the health of João Paulo (ACL) and Obed Vargas (back), both of whom missed most of last season with injuries. Both are effectively already full participants in preseason.

“With JP, we’re just trying to make sure nothing bad happens,” Schmetzer said. “Obed is similar, but he’s a little further ahead. We’re just making sure they tick the last couple boxes.”

Waibel loves a rumor...

New Sounders GM Craig Waibel admitted that he’s a “big fan of rumors” and joked about discovering he had managed to transfer Nouhou for $8 million, “which I thought was super impressive.”

More seriously, Waibel did seem to confirm that the Sounders had at least inquired about Japan forward Shuto Machino and UNAM Pumas’ Juan Dinenno.

While not literally naming Machino, he acknowledged, “Good research done in the offseason, you had the right name. We just didn’t get there with the player. Unfortunately, he was as good as we thought he was and made the World Cup team and then his viewpoint changed.”

Waibel addressed the Dinenno interest more directly, albeit still a bit cagey: “I’d love if he were to call me. He’s a pretty darn good player. We saw him firsthand last year. We can scout all we want, but when you see him against your own team it always piques your interest. You see players transferring internationally to teams they played. Exposure is everything. We aren’t any different. I call it the ‘camp crush,’ you meet someone on a Saturday night for a few hours and it’s pretty good.”

When asked if he had closed the door on potentially trying to acquire the 28-year-old in the future, Waibel added: “I’m not shutting it.”

A different perspective on loans

The Sounders have started to use loans more in recent seasons than they had before and Waibel indicated that’s a trend that will likely grow now that he’s the one making the final decisions. Those loans had previously been used more often on players with uncertain futures, but Waibel said that philosophy will likely change.

“Our developing players must play soccer to get better at soccer,” he said. “We can’t get caught up thinking we’re going to develop every player out here on this field.

“We won’t have many loans that have exit strategies. We aren’t loaning guys with the expectation that they’re not coming back. We want to put guys where they can develop and return to us better players.”

Core is likely set

After striking out on Machino, the Sounders moved their focus to Héber, who they acquired in a trade with New York City FC. Although they pursued free agent Aaron Long and remain open to the possibility of other moves, Waibel indicated that the core of the team is likely to remain unchanged and that he feels good about where they are as a roster heading into the Club World Cup.

“I like our group and I like our core and our developing players as well,” he said. “I’m consistent in that because I think we have enough talent to compete. I’m not going say anything absurd like if we were to play Real Madrid that we’d match up man for man but we like our group and we’re going to look to add, frankly because that’s our job and the coaches are never satisfied. After we got Hébert it was 10 minutes of handshakes and then ‘what’s next?’ From the group we see today, that’s the core in a month.”

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