Sounders FC hopes to build on last season's success, has MLS Cup in sight.
The hunger isn’t gone.
One year ago, the talk from Sounders FC camp was that the pain of another early exit from the MLS playoffs had created a craving for greater success. The gains were evident in 2011 with a second-place regular-season finish led by the league’s top offense, another U.S. Open Cup title, beating rivals Portland and Vancouver for the Cascadia Cup and advancement out of the CONCACAF Champions League group stage.
But last season also had its share of failure, primarily one more promising MLS playoff run ending too soon.
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So how is the Sounders’ appetite entering Year 4?
“When you don’t achieve all your goals, the hunger continues to grow,” said coach Sigi Schmid, whose team begins preseason training Thursday.
Amid the end-of-the-year letdowns, Sounders FC has shown marked growth over three seasons. With improvement as a baseline expectation again for 2012, that would almost certainly require a run at a major trophy — either the MLS Cup or the MLS Supporters’ Shield, which is awarded to the team with the best regular-season record.
Regarding the Supporters’ Shield, the league’s shift to an unbalanced, conference-heavy schedule next season will likely make it more difficult for a Western Conference team to finish with the most points. The West has long been the stronger conference, meaning its teams will face more games against tougher competition.
When it comes to the MLS Cup, however, there’s no reason to think Seattle can’t be considered the favorite.
The Los Angeles Galaxy would be another popular choice as the reigning MLS champion and the only team last year to finish with a better league record than the Sounders, but the team has suffered serious offseason losses.
Seattle, on the other hand, has been able to keep most of its talented core together.
“Our goal is for sure to win the MLS Cup,” said Schmid, “and I think we have a team that’s capable of achieving that. … As a team, you have to be able to be able to deal with the pressure of people looking at you as a favorite.”
The Sounders got some practice playing as the favorite last year, as a dominant run in the second half of the season elevated Seattle into the league’s elite. Schmid said the team matured, which was particularly evident with an MLS-best seven come-from-behind wins — the next-most was four.
Sounders FC also grew from its 3-2 aggregate series defeat to Real Salt Lake in the playoffs, according to Schmid. While a three-goal road loss in the first game still haunts the veteran coach, the experience helped the team learn how to read the game, play smart and do what’s necessary to get a result. Seattle followed the lopsided loss with a 2-0 win in the second game, its only postseason victory in six tries.
Other potential areas for improvement according to Schmid are maintaining better possession and applying more immediate defensive pressure upon turnovers. But the hunger to win is already taken care of.
“I don’t want to be like (former New England Revolution coach) Stevie Nicol and last 10 years and lose four MLS Cups in that process,” said Schmid, whose team is one of four to make the playoffs the past three seasons.
“It took L.A. three years to figure it out and win it, and they spent a lot more money on their team. It’s a case of us being able to figure it out and do the same thing. I’m confident when we get to the (MLS Cup) final, we’ll win.”
• Sounders FC has signed 19-year-old Trinidadian Cordell Cato, a speedy and versatile forward/midfielder to a reported one-year contract with two option years. Cato, who has U-20 national team experience, will be added to the roster upon receipt of his P-1 visa and international clearance.
• Honduran defenders Ever Alvarado and Harlinton Gutierres have been added to Seattle’s discovery list, giving the Sounders the first right within MLS to sign them. .
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @joshuamayers