By John Boyle Herald Columnist
TUKWILA — When the Seattle Sounders open their season Saturday night, they will be far from a finished product.
One of Seattle’s biggest offseason acquisitions, Shalrie Joseph, has a bit of work to do before he is game fit. The Sounders’ other starting forward — or at least the guy they’re really hoping will be their other starting forward, Obafemi Martins — is not under contract just yet. Also, potential starting center back Djimi Traore is still settling in with his new team and might not be ready for game action either.
It’s not ideal, no one is suggesting it is, but given the choice of having perfect team chemistry in March, or having the best team possible come playoff time, the Sounders have made it clear that they’re focused on the latter. Yes, Seattle has a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal coming up next week, and that’s a tournament the Sounders take very seriously. However, this year more than ever, they are a team focused on one goal, not on being as competitive as they can in every competition.
“Our big goal is MLS Cup, and so we were willing to sacrifice a little bit on the front end to make sure that we have things sorted come the summer as we head into the playoff hunt and hopefully tracking down an MLS Cup,” general manager Adrian Hanauer said.
And Hanauer doesn’t say that because he doesn’t care about the Champions League, or because he wouldn’t love to see his team win a fourth U.S. Open Cup in five years. It’s just that, after coming so tantalizingly close to an MLS Cup final last season, and after one postseason series victory in four appearances, winning that title is a more important goal than ever this season.
“In a perfect world some of these pieces would have come together a little faster,” Hanauer said. “Shalrie would have been a little further along, Djimi would have been a little further along, maybe we’ve got a deal done for another player coming in, and certainly in respect to the Champions League that’s a little bit disappointing. But ultimately our big target is an MLS Cup, and we want to be peaking in September, October, November, December.”
If Seattle is unceremoniously dumped from the Champions League by Tigres, currently the first-place team in Mexico’s Liga MX, it will certainly be disappointing. Or if, after four straight runs to the Open Cup final, Seattle loses in the early rounds, it might be a letdown to some. But considering how much the odds are stacked against MLS teams in the Champions League — Mexican teams are in midseason form, and have the talent that comes with payrolls that dwarf those of their American opponents — putting all of their eggs in the MLS Cup basket is the right move for the Sounders.
Look, winning those U.S. Open Cups was quite an accomplishment, especially doing it three straight times in a tournament with a one-and-done format that makes repeated success nearly impossible. However, an MLS Cup is a much more significant accomplishment.
Last year, the Sounders got the playoff monkey off their back by beating Real Salt Lake for their first postseason series victory. This year, the goal has to be getting at least one step further and making it to the championship game.
“Every year we try to improve, and improving this year is going one step further, which would be the MLS Cup championship game,” midfielder Steve Zakuani said. “So that’s what we’re aiming for.”
If Seattle’s biggest focus was on depth, on having a team built for being as competitive as possible in every competition, Hanauer wouldn’t have gone out and added a 34-year-old Joseph, who takes up a coveted designated player slot, knowing full well he’ll need another month or so to be game ready. He wouldn’t be, along with the rest of Seattle’s ownership, trying to negotiate a deal that would make Martins by far the highest paid player in franchise history, even if spending big in a cap-constrained year meant making tough decisions like the offseason trade that sent Jeff Parke to Philadelphia.
And it’s not that Seattle wasn’t trying to win titles in the past, but last year’s loss in the Western Conference finals have driven the front office and the players to push even harder to make this the year the Sounders bring a title to Seattle.
“The expectation is always to win a championship,” forward Eddie Johnson said. “We have the best fan support in the league, playing in front of 40,000-plus week in and week out, how can you not want to reward the city with a championship? Our goals are still the same. But we got a taste of what it felt like to be that close, and it was kind of bitter sweet.”
There’s reason to believe that Seattle’s MLS Cup-or-bust attitude might succeed.
If the Martins deal does get done as expected, that gives the Sounders a game-changing forward to pair with Johnson. It would make Seattle one of the most dangerous offensive clubs in the league when you add players like Zakuani and Mauro Rosales to the mix.
Joseph may be past his prime, but he’s motivated to finally win a title after a career of close calls. And he, Martins and Traore, who won a European title with Liverpool, all have plenty of big-game experience, something Sounders coach Sigi Schmid pointed out as a difference between his team and the L.A. Galaxy during last year’s conference final.
“(Traore) and Shalrie, they bring a calm onto the field, because they’ve been through those battles and those wars before,” Schmid said. “So they can help the guys next to them stay composed.”
Composed enough to win a title? Time will tell. But this year more than ever, even if it means sacrificing early season cohesiveness or other competitions, it is clear that’s where Seattle’s focus lies.
“To bring an MLS championship is why we’re training,” Zakuani said. “We’re not here training just to have fun, we want to win a championship and prove that we’re the best team in this country.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.