The loss of their most consistent offensive player a little more than a week before the season opener leaves the Sounders dazed, but also will free up time for a star-studded group of strikers.
It got as high as 82 in Tucson, where the Sounders held their training camp last week.
It was 86 in Los Angeles, where they landed Saturday and will remain through this weekend.
These temps may seem toasty to Northwesterners, but they’re Antarctic for Seattle general manager Garth Lagerway. At this point, you could boil water on the chair he’s sitting on.
One week before their first competitive game of the year, the Sounders are suddenly sans their best player. By all accounts, Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins is en route to the Chinese Super League, leaving Seattle’s offense with a Roswell-sized crater.
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Despite neither playing more than 21 games, Martins and Clint Dempsey combined for 25 goals and 16 assists last season and were Major League Soccer’s top 1-2 punch. Now, the more salient punch is the one Sounders fans took to the gut.
Where else do you see a superstar bounce eight days before the start of competitive play? Imagine the blow this town would feel if Russell Wilson left for the CFL during Week 4 of the preseason.
No time to strategize. No chance to build a real contingency plan. It’s like the lead actor leaving the set just before the director calls “action!”
Where the blame lies for this misfortune is murky, of course. The Sounders could have tried to force Martins to honor his contract, but given how the Chinese league is assumed to be giving him a significant bump in pay, he wouldn’t have been content here. And if you want to scold Martins for lacking loyalty — get in line. The 31-year-old is a soccer mercenary who’s about to join the ninth club of his career. This development may be distressing, but it shouldn’t be too surprising.
Still, if you’re a Sounders fan who was set on history this year, you’d be justified in your heartache. Martins scored 40 goals in 72 MLS games, was the runner-up in the 2014 MVP voting, and has been Seattle’s most consistent player since his arrival.
Last year, the Sounders began 9-4-2 when Oba was healthy, then lost 8 out of 10 when he was not. And when he and Dempsey returned in late August, Seattle went on a two-month unbeaten streak that had the franchise flirting with its first MLS Cup.
That goal, of course, failed to come to fruition, as Dallas dropped the Sounders in a nail-gnawing semifinal. Worse yet, the Portland Timbers — Seattle’s chief rivals — went on to win their first MLS crown.
And now, with Martins’ departure, the Sounders’ chances of making a championship breakthrough just dropped 10 dress sizes. The good news? Things can get a whole lot better.
Lagerway’s offseason wasn’t as caffeinated as that of Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto’s, but he did squeeze in a big score. Landing homegrown forward Jordan Morris — the 21-year-old who won the 2015 Hermann Trophy as the best men’s soccer player in Division I — beefed up an offense already loaded with star power.
Does that addition offset the loss of Martins? Probably not. But it does create an opportunity for Lagerway to flex some of that executive muscle.
Martins’ exodus frees up significant cap room and allows the Sounders to add another designated player. And seeing as how they’re stacked with strikers (assuming Morris produces as expected), they can pursue a high-quality midfielder and give the roster banner-level balance.
Will it happen immediately? Probably not. In fact, if it happens at all, it wouldn’t likely be until the summer. But for the first time in a while, the Sounders’ success is just as contingent on the men wearing the suits as the men wearing the jerseys.
At this point, expecting Seattle to win the Supporters’ Shield or make a title run would be more optimistic than realistic. With one or two shrewd moves, however, Lagerway could put this team right back among the league’s elite.
Don’t count ’em out yet. Obafemi Martins may be gone, but the Sounders shouldn’t be forgotten.