TUKWILA — When the Seattle Sounders were unceremoniously booted from the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals last month by an onslaught of Santos Laguna goals, there was some definite concern about the defense that was about to begin the 2012 Major League Soccer season.
It wasn’t that anyone was going to panic about one bad half of soccer. Seattle, after all, had more than held its own against Santos for a game and a half before falling apart in the final half of the two-leg quarterfinal.
Still, the Sounders were about to begin MLS play with plenty of questions on defense. Seattle was embarking on its first season without former team captain and U.S. soccer legend Kasey Keller in goal. James Riley, the team’s starting right back for three seasons, was gone after the team decided not to protect him in the expansion draft. Seattle also was coming into the season with the possibility of a newcomer at left back with offseason addition Marc Burch pushing Leo Gonzalez hard for the starting job.
Mix in uncertainty with that six-goal onslaught by Santos and there was suddenly legitimate reason to wonder how well Seattle would be able to protect its goal in 2012.
Well, four games into the regular season, the Sounders’ defense has done plenty to quiet any and all critics.
Seattle has given up just two goals in four games on the way to a 2-1-1 record, and one of those scores came on a spectacular long-range shot so good that, when asked about it after the game, goalkeeper Michael Gspurning jokingly put on a cap just so he could tip it to Toronto’s Ryan Johnson. The only other goal Seattle has conceded came on questionable foul call that gave San Jose a penalty kick.
“It’s important,” center back Patrick Ianni said of his team’s ability to bounce back from the Santos loss. “I don’t think the group ever lost confidence or faith after that game in Santos, but it was a rough one. You have to pick yourself back up and get going again.”
What makes Seattle’s stingy defense more impressive is the fact that it has been accomplished with a rotating cast of characters.
Ianni is the only defender to start all four of Seattle’s regular season games, and he figured to be the odd man out at center back with Jeff Parke and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado projected as starters. Park and Hurtado have both started games, as have two right backs — Adam Johansson and Zach Scott — and two left backs — Gonzalez and Burch.
“It’s just a matter of us all being on the same page,” said Parke, who lost his starting job after that Santos game, but got the nod last week with Hurtado injured.
“The defense isn’t just the back four; the whole team is doing a really good job of getting after guys and winning their duals on the field.”
As Parke points out, Seattle’s strong defense is the result of more than just four defenders and a goalkeeper doing their job. Osvaldo Alonso, widely regarded as one of the league’s best defensive midfielders, also plays a big role, as do the rest of the midfielders. The Sounders also are one of the better teams in the league when it comes to possession, and, obviously, when opponents see less of the ball, it limits their scoring chances.
But while everyone is contributing to the defensive effort, the most visible player on the back end, Gspurning, deserves plenty of credit as well. Given the unenviable task of replacing a local legend, the big Austrian has done more than enough to make Sounders fans feel good about the new man in goal.
“It was important to bring in veteran goalkeeper, because the expectations were going to be demanding just because it’s tough to follow somebody like Kasey, who is a legend,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “But (Gspurning) had the maturity and the ability, and he has his own style — it’s different that Kasey’s — but that’s OK as long as you keep the ball out of the net. He’s getting confident, he’s feeling more comfortable with the players, getting to know the league.”
Another key, according to Schmid, has been the team’s ability to stick to game plan. Last weekend, a big reason Seattle held D.C. United scoreless was Alonso’s ability to limit Dwayne De Rosario, the reigning league MVP.
“If you’re defending, everybody is defending,” Schmid said. “It’s not just your goalkeeper, it’s not just your defense; it’s your midfielders and your forwards as well. I think we’ve done a good job of sticking to whatever our game plan was in a particular game. For example, in D.C. I thought we did a good job of shutting down De Rosario and limiting what he could do. I thought against Houston we did a good job of not giving away a lot of free kicks and limiting the spaces that Brad Davis had.
“When you take away guys that are good playmakers like that and limit what they can do, it helps you defensively.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.