TUKWILA – Time has come for the final stage of Sounders FC’s preseason training camp. The team will depart for Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday for 12 days of work ahead of its March 8 season opener against Sporting Kansas City.
The trip will be centered on three games in the Carolina Challenge Cup, an annual preseason tournament hosted by the Charleston Battery of the third-tier USL PRO.
The Sounders played four exhibitions earlier this month in Arizona, going 3-0-1, but this time the games will be more competitive and the focus will be wider than player evaluation, according to coach Sigi Schmid.
“We’re still making decisions on guys who make the team and don’t make the team, but we’re also looking at lot more at what our final starting lineup looks like,” said Schmid, who noted there will be another round of training-camp cuts before Wednesday’s flight.
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That is the business part, but there is also a personal aspect to the trip as four players in camp have ties to Charleston.
Osvaldo Alonso, Lamar Neagle and Alex Caskey, three players under contract in Seattle, played for the Battery before establishing themselves in MLS. Michael Azira is an unsigned invitee who played for the Battery the past two seasons.
“I’m very happy to go back,” said Alonso, who eventually found his way to Charleston after defecting from Cuba in 2007. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my old friends and my old team — the team who opened my door in U.S. to play professionally.”
Alonso has gone on to earn a wealth of honors from MLS (Best XI, three-time All-Star) and the Sounders (four-time team MVP), but he more than made his mark with the Battery. That season, Alonso won league Rookie of the Year and led Charleston to the U.S. Open Cup final — no lower-division team has advanced that far since.
Azira said Alonso’s return will be a big deal: “People love him there so much. He did great things for them, and what he did down there will never go away.”
For Neagle and Caskey, the road was a little bit different. Both went to the Battery after failing to make the Sounders in 2010 and 2011, respectively, and both claim to be better for it.
Neagle said Charleston is “a very special place for me,” particularly as the site where he regained his confidence and scoring form through regular playing time. Fast forward to last season and the Federal Way native set personal bests in goals and assists to earn a new contract.
Caskey called Charleston “a great starting point for me,” when looking back at his own development. And as a former participant of the Carolina Challenge Cup, he had always hoped the Sounders would make the trip one year.
The success stories serve as inspiration for training-camp hopefuls like Azira.
“Ozzie, Caskey and Neagle, they did a great job in Charleston and they’re doing a great job here, too,” he said. “It’s something to look up to … but it always comes down to your work and what you put in.”
• Defender DeAndre Yedlin suffered a sprained ankle this week in practice, but Schmid indicated it isn’t serious.
• Schmid said the team may add an exhibition March 1 before its tournament game in order to provide minutes for more players.
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