The Sounders opened their 2018 camp with a largely unchanged roster in which 10 of 11 starters from the MLS Cup loss in December are back. But the closing of the European transfer deadline next week could bring some more new faces into the mix.
Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey took one for his team Monday as the squad opened training camp just six weeks removed from a resounding loss in the MLS Cup final.
Lagerwey touted the official party line about the Sounders being fine opening with 10 of 11 starters returning from the 2017 group that surrendered its title to Toronto FC. And yet, the team standing still remains highly unlikely given the talent gap exposed by Toronto in that final, which the Sounders probably won’t significantly narrow before the European transfer deadline passes at month’s end.
But until that Jan. 31 deadline arrives, after which negotiations with several international players should loosen up, Lagerwey must keep extolling the virtues of a roster of familiar faces.
“We weren’t happy with how we played in the final,’’ Lagerwey said Monday. “That outcome was not a good one. We did not perform well. We are not sitting here and saying losing in the final in that matter is acceptable.
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“But what we are saying is, we’re not willing to throw the baby out with the bath water and rebuild from scratch because we lost one game on the road.’’
To be certain, nobody has suggested that. But there’s merit to some fan unease about a team that – despite returning mainstays Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan, Stefan Frei, Roman Torres and Chad Marshall — may not have been as good as the top five Eastern Conference squads last season.
Toronto was the best of those and proved their superiority with a 2-0 title victory at BMO Field in December that should have been double that score. Lagerwey said Monday that “on some level we didn’t show up’’ and that reasons for the lopsided defeat were myriad and perhaps not worth rehashing six weeks later.
Nevertheless, in a league where payroll is playing a larger role than ever – especially with new Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) rules to bolster mid-range roster talent – the Sounders will be expected by fans to again spend on acquiring international talent.
Payroll figures from the MLS players’ union showed top-spending Toronto more than doubled the No. 7 Sounders in total player compensation to start last season, at $22.5 million versus $10.4 million. But the Sounders were also only slightly ahead of the $8.9 million spent by No. 8 Atlanta United FC, which last week threw more money around by adding Argentine midfielder Ezequiel Barco for an MLS record $15 million transfer fee.
That fee alone – never mind teenager Barco’s salary — was higher than the payrolls of all but two MLS teams. And it signals the talent gap could keep increasing for MLS squads that grasp their wallets too tightly each off-season.
The expansion Atlanta side was one of the five Eastern Conference clubs with better records than the Sounders – along with Toronto, Chicago, Columbus and New York City FC. The Sounders went 0-5-1 against those teams and all but Atlanta and Columbus outspent them.
Atlanta also acquired Portland midfield star Darlington Nagbe last month for TAM money, sending a message they just might be the new Eastern force to be reckoned with.
For the Sounders, hoping to host an MLS Cup final after playing the last two in Toronto, finishing ahead of teams in both conferences will be paramount.
But until the European transfer window closes, Lagerwey’s hands are largely tied. Players use the window as leverage with MLS teams, threatening to take offers from Europe if they don’t get the money they want here.
Lagerwey a year ago swapped out 13 players – including five starters – from his 2016 championship squad. But he didn’t add Swedish midfielder Gustav Svensson until the Chinese Super League began finalizing foreign player roster quotas in late January. By the summer, he added right back Kelvin Leerdam from the Netherlands and Spanish midfielder Victor Rodriguez – players the team expects to shine over a full season this time around.
The return from injury of third-year forward Jordan Morris – who will start at striker – could also equate to a strong TAM signing by the Sounders if he regains his form.
“We lost two games in the last six months of the season before the final,’’ Lagerwey said. “That’s an indication that I think that our group was pretty solid. Again, it’s not that we got hot. It’s that we were consistently good over a long period of time.’’
The main newcomer is veteran Costa Rican fullback Waylon Francis, 27, from the Columbus Crew, who will battle second-year starter Nouhou to replace departed left back Joevin Jones. Francis racked up 18 assists over four seasons in Columbus and feels his biggest asset is delivering long crosses into the box.
“That’s the way I played in Columbus, so I proved that I could do that in this league,’’ he said Monday.
For now, Francis is the lone new face among expected first-teamers that will train in Chula Vista, Calif. the rest of this week. But there may be other newcomers afterward for a second camp in Tucson, Ariz. from Feb. 2-8 if the European window expiry hastens negotiations.
The early road camps are because the Sounders have a Feb. 22 Champions League match in El Salvador requiring them to be ready far earlier than a year ago. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer wants a quicker start this year, as opposed to the “erratic’’ early play last season that doomed any shot at hosting the final.
“The positives are, everybody’s coming back and everybody’s relatively healthy,’’ he said. “And we’re going to try to get after it real quick.’’
With a squad that, for at least this next week, should remain mostly unchanged from the one that ended last season.