SEATTLE -- Last season, the Seattle Sounders ambushed much of MLS and got off to a flying start on their way to becoming the first expansion team in more than a decade to make the playoffs. With Thursday's opener against debutantes the Philadelphia Union, they'll try to make sure the hunter doesn't become the hunted.
It's a task that is trickier than it first appears. In 2009, Seattle had the luxury of opening with a schedule heavy in home games. And given the somewhat unexpected fervor of the crowds at Qwest Field, the team rode an adrenaline rush in the opening months of the season. This time around, the roar of the crowd might be the same, but the team's past experience makes for a new dynamic.
"Everybody recognizes that we've had a good year under our belt, so we come out with a little bit of a different attitude," Seattle midfielder Brad Evans said. "I think now we know what to expect in our home venue. Last year, it was a bit of a surprise, a little bit emotional. Now, we come in a little more clearheaded going into this one."
That doesn't mean the Union will be at a complete disadvantage. Not only does the roster feature some MLS veterans -- including former Sounder Sebastien Le Toux -- who know all about playing at Qwest Field, but Philadelphia's expansion status makes it something of a moving target.
"The plus side of it [for Philadelphia] is that nobody knows what you're all about, so you can surprise a few people," Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said. "We're going into the first game guessing. What kind of formation are they going to play? Who are they going to play where? What's this kid [Roger] Torres like? There are a lot of guys we haven't seen, so there's that plus side of it as the new guy.
"The other side of it is that other teams feel that they have some experience, they have some continuity and unity, and that they'll be able to take advantage of you and jump on you early. ... We got off to a good start last year, and that really helped us. We're sure that's what Philly is trying to do."
Of course, in addition to making educated guesses about the opposition, Schmid is trying to make sure the scoring drought that plagued the team at the end of last season doesn't bleed into the current campaign. The problem was especially acute at home, where the Sounders were shut out in five of their last six matches, including the playoffs.
The barren spell was all the more puzzling given the array of attacking talent Schmid has at his disposal. Creative hub Freddie Ljungberg returns, as does leading scorer Fredy Montero. While Nate Jaqua likely will be sidelined by a lower abdominal injury, the pace of Steve Zakuani should cause plenty of problems down the left wing.
Then again, there are times when a team plays only as well as the opposition allows. And last season, as Seattle became more of a known quantity, teams began to alter their tactical approach, especially in the din of Qwest Field.
"Teams started to come into Qwest and started to play a little more defensively, so we're working on how to break down a team that's packed in the back," Schmid said. "Also we're making sure that we do a better job of getting into the box and making better runs in there. Those are all elements that we're trying to do."
Yet chances are the Union will opt to soak up pressure and try to nail the Sounders on the break. With veteran defenders Danny Califf and Shavar Thomas marshalling Philly's defense, not to mention Le Toux and Alejandro Moreno spearheading the attack, the Union certainly have the personnel to pull off such a tactic, although the one-game suspension of midfielder Fred is a huge loss. The question is whether a team lacking in cohesion has the requisite patience and discipline as well.
"I know Peter Nowak, and I know he likes to attack," Schmid said of Philadelphia's coach. "He's going to try and get them forward on the counter and do some things well, and if the game somehow is not going in his direction, he has a great desire to win, and at that point I know they'll open it up and go for it."
At which point, the hunt will be on again for Seattle.
|MLS season opener
Watch the Philadelphia Union take on the Seattle Sounders at 9:30 p.m. ET Thursday on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and ESPN360.com.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.