The Seattle Sounders wrapped up preseason action this weekend with their final Carolina Challenge Cup game against the Columbus Crew on Saturday and then a scrimmage against the College of Charleston on Sunday.
Seattle now must flip the switch from preseason to regular season, as the Sounders kick off the 2017 campaign on the road this Saturday, March 4, against the Houston Dynamo.
With just a few days to go before the start of the regular season, the Sounders appear to be in good shape. However, there are still some questions that exist for the team heading into the first MLS Cup title defense season in team history.
-Will Dempsey be “good to go?”
Clint Dempsey’s health has been the No. 1 question since day one of the offseason.
The former US men’s national team captain set the record straight just over a week ago, announcing that he was “cleared to play.” After Monday’s training, head coach Brian Schmetzer said there’s a “high probability” Dempsey will be in the starting lineup for Saturday.
While the Sounders will remain cautious with their designated player moving forward, it’s not just his health that is of concern.
Dempsey hasn’t played in a regular season game since last August, and while he’s maintained his fitness level, the grueling nature of a nine-plus month long MLS season has its challenges. Consistent performances haven’t necessarily plagued Dempsey since joining the Sounders in 2013, yet it may take some time before he reaches the level Seattle fans have become accustomed to.
Putting in several strong performances during his limited minutes of the Carolina Challenge Cup this past week, Dempsey seems to have not missed a beat. This includes his link-up play with Nicholas Lodeiro, a partnership the Sounders would love to see flourish.
If he can stay healthy, the Sounders can absolutely benefit from a player of Dempsey’s caliber. With his age and health beginning to show signs that his career in its later stages, Dempsey will may need to begin to evolve into a more possession-minded player. And if the Sounders start him, as expected, at center mid, that could come sooner rather than later.
-Who starts at right back?
Along with the likes of Nelson Valdez, Erik Friberg, and Andreas Ivanschitz, this offseason included the departure of Sounders defender Tyrone Mears, who’s rights were traded to MLS newcomer Atlanta United FC.
Mears jumped into the right back role in 2015, shortly after the departure of homegrown starter Deandre Yedlin. With a deep background in the Premiere League, Mears made 65 appearances for the Sounders over two season, and played all 120 minutes at right back in the MLS Cup Final.
The Sounders did not pick up Mears option in the offseason, which suggest they were content with moving on from the 34 year old defender. Seattle knew they had several options, but unlike their last two right backs in Mears and Yedlin, this years starter may not be as clear.
With the Seattle Times reporting Monday night that Brad Evans will miss over a month with a calf muscle strain, the depth pool has already shrunk. Evans has experience playing right back with the US men’s national team.
Other options include offseason signing Gustav Svensson, Jamaican international Oneil Fisher, and rookie homegrown player Henry Wingo.
Svensson seems the most likely to start the season. Acquired to fill depth in central midfield, the Swede played the full 90 minutes of Saturday’s tilt with Columbus at right back. His speed allows for centerbacks Roman Torres and Chad Marshall to focus more on pressure coming up the middle and less as a support on the outside. It also gives the Sounders an option going forward to attack, as Svensson can overlap and help Seattle in the build up.
Fisher is a potential long term option at the position for the Sounders. Wingo showed flashes of brilliance in preseason. With both being younger prospects, they may be better suited as depth or coming off the bench in later stages of the game to help shore up the defense.
The MLS rumor mill exploded early Friday morning with reports coming out of Italy claiming that Japan international midfielder Keisuke Honda was leaving AC Milan and set to join the Sounders. Those rumors have since quieted down.
Honda is an attacking midfielder who can play both in the middle as well as out on the wing. Over his 13 year career, he’s scored 63 goals with stops in the Netherlands, Russia and most recently Italy. While having not featured much for Milan this season, he has been a regular cornerstone of the Japan national team. His 36 goals are fifth most in history for Japan.
Correspondents at both ESPN and MLS confirmed through sources that the Sounders interest in Honda is legit. However, the timetable and certainty of the deal is still very much in question.
On Monday, general manager Garth Lagerway stuck to club policy, which is to not comment on players currently under contract.
Honda would be quite the attacking addition to a side that already features Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris and Nico Lodeiro. Seattle fans will have to wait and see, for now, on if this fantasy will become reality.
-How long can Seattle go without their full lineup?
The expectation for Saturday is that the Sounders will be ready to go with A squad. But will it be THE squad that Lagerway and Schmetzer envision for the 2017 campaign? Probably not.
With Evans out with an injury, goalkeeper and MLS Cup MVP Stefan Frei coming back from an injury sustained in USMNT camp, Jordan Morris dealing with a rolled ankle and Osvaldo Alonso being eased back into preseason games, the Sounders may not be at full strength come Saturday.
Yet that may not matter either.
Schmetzer has been adamant that they “want to win every game.” But as last year proved, not all games during the year are created equal.
If 2017 taught MLS fans anything, it’s that a team’s outcome does not depend on how they faired for the first month or so of the season. Seattle was near the bottom of the Western Conference in July, and went on a stretch run late in the season to get in to the playoffs and eventually win MLS Cup.
With the length of the MLS season what it is, there’s an argument to be made for players eased into the season.
Morris, Alonso, Frei and Evans will all return eventually. If the Sounders need to take a few extra games to make sure they are completely ready to go, then so be it. It’s worth the wait in the long run.