Four pressing questions as the Sounders begin their quest for another MLS title.
Barely a month-and-a-half after lifting their first-ever MLS Cup trophy in Toronto, the Sounders will officially return to practice Tuesday at Starfire Sports in Tukwila.
Yes, Major League Soccer’s comically brief offseason allows its defending champion with little time to so much as catch a breath. But it’s a burden the Sounders will gladly shoulder after the glory of last month’s title game. And they will carry with them a residual sense of excitement and expectation when they jog onto those Starfire practice fields on Tuesday morning.
Below are four pressing questions at the dawn of the 2017 MLS preseason.
Will Clint Dempsey be cleared to return to action?
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Seattle’s highest paid and highest profile star has been out since last August with an irregular heartbeat. The party line from the club has been that it expects Dempsey to return to game action at some point this season, and the 33-year-old was a steady presence at practice during the team’s playoff run, jogging and doing light drills on the side.
There has been no concrete update on Dempsey’s status since late September, with general manager Garth Lagerwey deflecting all questions toward this preseason. Expect some kind of word — albeit likely vague and not all that definitive — at some point this week.
Until the Sounders find out for sure whether Dempsey can come back, everything from roster building to penciling in attacking combinations is on hold.
Who will step into the vacated holes in the lineup?
Thirteen players had their contract options declined the Monday following MLS Cup, including key difference-makers Nelson Valdez, Andreas Ivanschitz, Erik Friberg and Tyrone Mears. The turnover of so many aging veterans is in line with Lagerwey’s oft-stated goal of a leaner, younger roster, but that’s a lot of invaluable experience heading out of town.
The trades to acquire midfielder Harry Shipp from Montreal and forward Will Bruin from Houston should help. Shipp is a likely starter from Day 1 on the wing, and Bruin is a proven goal-scorer who will slot into the rotation up top.
But there remain some glaring holes on the depth chart as the team opens camp.
Where does Brad Evans fit into this team?
The longtime captain has been in positional purgatory from the moment the club signed Panamanian center back Roman Torres in the summer of 2015.
Evans remained in central defense while Torres recovered from the knee injury he suffered shortly after his arrival in Seattle, but he always felt like a placeholder. The budding partnership of Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan in defensive midfield means Evans isn’t likely to slot in there, either.
It’s possible once Evans returns from U.S. national team camp early next month that he’ll move to the right back position vacated by Mears. Evans has said in the past that until the Sounders are willing to give him a full-time role — rather than deploying him as a utility guy — he’s open to moving to another club that will.
Right back is the only obvious fit with the way this team is currently built.
How will the momentum carry over from 2016?
So much of Seattle’s championship run was getting hot at the right time. The Sounders went 8-2-4 to close out the regular season after Schmetzer took over from longtime head coach Sigi Schmid, riding that sizzling streak all the way to the winner’s circle.
That’s a tough thing to replicate for the entirety of MLS’s marathon eight-month regular season.
Schmetzer imbued his team with a sense of urgency. When he said every game was a must-win, given their tenuous place in the league standings, he wasn’t just blowing smoke.
His challenge is different in Year 2. Will Schmetzer adjust his coaching style, if only subtly? How will the players respond early, when the immediacy of the playoff push is still a long way off? Only time will tell.