Seattle looks for even more success in second season
2009 record and finish: 12-7-11, finished third in Western Conference (lost to Houston 1-0 in first round of playoffs).
Key additions: F Blaise Nkufo
Key questions facing this team:
1. Can the Sounders follow up on their first-year success?
Sure looks that way.
Sigi Schmid's side remains pretty much intact after last season's rookie run. Seattle became just the second expansion team in league history to make the playoffs. For good measure, the Sounders led the MLS in attendance, and won the U.S. Open Cup. With Schmid -- who previously won MLS Cups with Los Angeles and Columbus -- calling the shots on the pitch, and headliners like Swedish midfielder Freddie Ljungberg and Colombian striker Fredy Montero, expect Seattle to find success again. The Sounders appear ready to prove that last season was no fluke and that they will be a player in the Western Conference.
2. When will Seattle get Nate Jaqua at full strength?
Best-case scenario: Jaqua comes off the bench for Seattle's season opener against expansion Philadelphia in the Emerald City. Jaqua, who put up career highs in goals (nine) and assists (seven) last year, has been on the shelf with a groin injury for most of preseason. He first began experiencing pain last season.
Jaqua's first full training session with Seattle didn't come until March 16, so it appears his first start in the midfield may not come until several games into the season. That leaves Sanna Nyassi and Roger Levesque, both of whom played on Seattle's USL-1 team, to compete for Jaqua's playing time in the midfield. While Jaqua's energy and playmaking is a big plus, the Sounders shouldn't go broke without him.
Second-year player Steve Zakuani is expected to improve, and Ljungberg and Montero will freelance in the midfield.
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3. Can Freddie and Fredy get it done up top?
It sure makes for an intriguing combo.
Montero lit it up as a rookie with 12 goals for the Sounders. Only 22, he was named MLS Newcomer of the Year. Meanwhile, Ljungberg came to Seattle after two years with West Ham United. Of course, the former Calvin Klein model made a name for himself in the EPL during his nine seasons with Arsenal (1998-2007). Ljungberg saw more time in the midfield last season.
While the Freddie-meets-Fredy combo is a sexy one, they still need to score. The Sounders did lead the MLS in fewest goals allowed last season -- 29 -- but they put up just 38, fifth in the Western Conference and eighth in the league. That scoring output likely will get the Sounders only so far.
Biggest X factor: Blaise Nkufo
Seattle added another scoring threat when it signed Nkufo, 34, an experienced sniper, earlier this month. He won't arrive to the Pacific Northwest until after the World Cup, but when Nkufo does, keepers should take cover.
A striker on the Swiss national team, Nkufo has starred for Dutch side FC Twente since 2003. A native of Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Nkufo has more than 100 career goals for Twente. He has led Twente in scoring each of the past six years, with 21 or more goals in each of the past three.
Nkufo has made 27 appearances for Switzerland, scoring seven goals, including five in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. He signed an 18-month contract with Seattle, with an option for another year.
Breakout player to watch: Steve Zakuani
Not only did Zakuani show off his writing skills, checking in with a rookie diary for Soccernet last season, he put up a solid freshman year. The first overall pick out of Akron in 2009's MLS SuperDraft, Zakuani put up four goals and four assists, flashing his dynamic game with runs up the field. He is dangerous on the left side and only figures to get better with more experience. Keep in mind that Zakuani played most of last season bothered by a bum shoulder, which has nagged him since his Akron days. Offseason surgery, which revealed a torn ligament and chipped bone, repaired Zakuani's shoulder. He is healed and ready to go.
From third to first? With all its talent, Seattle seems like it can contend for the Western Conference regular-season championship. We all know about the glam guys -- Montero, Ljungberg, Zakuani et al. However, don't forget that Seattle also made it happen with gritty defensive work.
Keeper Kasey Keller, 40, came home from England and put up another solid year with 10 shutouts and a 0.92 goals-against average. James Riley and Tyrone Marshall led the Sounders' tenacious backfield. Riley started 27 games and Marshall 25. Marshall was sent to Seattle by Toronto FC in February of last season for allocation money, and the Sounders named him their defender of the year last season. He enters this season 15th in the MLS in all-time games played (274). Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, who played for Seattle on loan from Colombian side Deportivo Cali last season, rounds out the Sounders' menacing back line. He signed a permanent deal with Seattle last month.
Then there is Seattle's 12th man.
Loyal, boisterous, proud Sounders fans, dressed in green and blue scarves, routinely flocked to Qwest Field -- about 31,000 deep -- for home games. Seattle expects to average more than 35,000 spectators, led by its supporters group -- The Alliance. And the Sounders may give their fans an even better show this summer.
Justin Rodriguez covers USL, NCAA and youth soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at email@example.com.