TUKWILA — In their transition back to Major League Soccer from a two-month offseason, Sounders co-captains Nico Lodeiro and Stefan Frei went from sandy beaches to a snowy soccer field.
While Seattle braced for cold weather this week, Lodeiro (Uruguay) and Frei (Mexico) posted photos via social media of their warm getaways. The players joined the rest of the team for the first on-field training session of 2020 at Starfire Sports on Tuesday. As the session progressed, so did the snowfall, blanketing the stadium’s artificial turf when the practice concluded at noon.
“I like this weather,” Lodeiro said. “My offseason was really good. I enjoyed spending my time with my family, friends and the beach.”
Seattle is one of five MLS teams starting their preseason early because they qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League. The two-legged series opens with Round of 16 matches in February. MLS’s season opens March 1.
The temperature in Tukwila didn’t cool the team’s excitement to start work in defending the 2019 MLS Cup it won in November. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said he placed the trophy, along with the club’s 2016 Cup, in the locker room to remind the players of their accomplishments.
A solid core from both championship teams has returned for camp. Defenders Gustav Svensson (Sweden) and Nouhou (Cameroon) were the only expected players that haven’t reported, and forward Jordan Morris and midfielder Cristian Roldan are training with the U.S. men’s national team.
Late-season signing Emanuel Cecchini, a midfielder from Argentina, likely won’t play for the Sounders this year. Cecchini, 23, was picked up via loan from Spanish club Malaga CF in August. He made one start in his four matches and logged two shots in 155 minutes.
“Emanuel came here and did everything I asked him to do,” Schmetzer said. “Things didn’t work out; sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
The Sounders also opened camp without four players who played big roles in winning the Cup last fall. Defender Roman Torres signed with MLS expansion club Inter Miami CF, and winger Victor Rodriguez returned to his native Spain. Left back Brad Smith was on a loan from AFC Bournemouth that expired in December, and negotiations with veteran center back Kim Kee-hee have stalled.
Lodeiro and Frei noted the gaps in the roster but quickly pointed out it’s not in players’ control. Garth Lagerwey, Sounders general manager and president of soccer, said the roster holes are because MLS and the MLS Players Association haven’t ratified a new collective-bargaining agreement, which expires this month.
Among the issues to be resolved is the salary cap. The Sounders don’t want to finalize any of what they’re calling “impact signings” without concrete numbers, though they signed MLS defender Shane O’Neill on Tuesday after inviting him to camp.
O’Neill, a six-year veteran, played center back for Orlando City SC last season. His option was declined after starting eight of his 11 matches, totaling 838 minutes.
“Shane is a good veteran player that addresses a position of need for us,” Lagerwey said in a release announcing O’Neill’s signing. “He’s a guy with experience in MLS and abroad, and we’re looking forward to welcoming him to the squad as preseason camp begins.”
At training Tuesday, Lagerwey expressed confidence in his preseason roster, which includes academy and Tacoma Defiance players: “The core guys who are here, are still really good. If you put a starting lineup out tomorrow with just the guys who are here, we would still win a ton of games. That’s really what we’ve been cognizant of. These guys are the defending champs, and they’ve been to three of the last four finals. We’re good. We’ve just got to chill out a little bit and wait and do things methodically and correctly once we know everything.”
The Sounders won’t have any trouble chilling. More inclement weather is expected this week.
After three more practices at Starfire, the team will travel to California on Saturday to continue camp at California State University in Long Beach. The Sounders will then travel to Mexico City for their final prep before opening the Champions League against CD Olimpia on Feb. 20 in Honduras. The second of the two-legged series is Feb. 27 at CenturyLink Field.
“To look back at last year knowing that we (couldn’t) have had a better outcome, that’s the best feeling ever,” Frei said. “With that in mind, we also can look back at 2017 and how our start that year was not as good. We want to avoid that.
“CONCACAF is difficult, but it’s a huge opportunity. One that no MLS team has been able to conquer. There’s a chance. There’s a massive chance there, so we’re excited.”