TUKWILA — There was never a massive overhaul of the Sounders FC roster, no rebuilding project. Yet over time, enough players have come and gone that the current roster no longer looks much like the one that opened the 2009 season, Seattle’s first in Major League Soccer.
Even so, as Sounders FC began training for its fifth season Monday, one notable absence did stand out. For the first time since coming into the league as an expansion team, Seattle is without forward Fredy Montero, the franchise leader in goals and assists. It’s hardly been a secret that Montero was on his way out, heading to play on loan for Colombian club Millonarios. But the move didn’t become official until Monday morning, and it really felt official a few hours later when players took the field to prepare for a new season without one of the biggest names in franchise history.
(And no, by the way, it’s not your imagination; Major League Soccer’s offseason is ridiculously short).
With Montero’s departure, Seattle now has just six players remaining from its 2009 opening day roster: midfielders Steve Zakuani, Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans, and defenders Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Patrick Ianni and Zach Scott.
Montero’s departure frees up a designated player slot on Seattle’s roster, and general manager Adrian Hanauer said the team is exploring options to fill it, but whether or not a big-name talent is added to the mix, expectations will be high in 2013. Seattle has been a playoff team in each of its first four seasons, and last year won a playoff series for the first time, advancing to the Western Conference final before losing to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
“You never say do or die, make or break, but as a team, we need to now go another step,” Zakuani said. “We know what we need to do.”
And the feeling in Seattle’s front office is that, while another goal scorer would be nice, the team can contend for a title as it is currently constructed.
“I feel confident we can open the season with the people we have here,” said Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid. “We want to make sure that the guy we bring in is the right guy. We don’t want to feel (like) our backs are against the wall and make a decision just to make a decision and bring in the wrong guy. So from that standpoint, we have enough confidence in what we have, but we’re also looking as well.”
Of course just because this group is confident, that doesn’t mean they won’t miss Montero, a three-time MLS All Star who scored 47 goals in his four seasons in Seattle.
“Fredy could produce things that nobody in the league could produce at times,” Zakuani said. “He was a special player. Fredy was a friend to me because we came to Seattle around the same time and we shared some great times together. But we’re used to it now that every year you lose people. We’ve lost a lot of good players over the years. It’s just the turnaround at a professional club; it’s the way it is. We wish Fredy, of course, the best in his career and for his next step, but we have to focus on what we have here in Seattle, who’s coming in and what we have right now, and try to make it work for us.”
Before Montero’s loan was finalized, he was signed to a multi-year extension — his previous deal ran through the 2014 season. That move was made for two reasons, according to Hanauer. For starters, it increases Montero’s value on the loan market, and secondly, it keeps alive the possibility of Montero returning to Seattle somewhere down the road.
Montero wanted to return to his native Colombia in large part to increase his chances of making his country’s national team before the 2014 World Cup. Playing for Millonarios, the defending Colombian league champs, will give Montero a better chance of impressing national team coaches, particularly with the club competing in the Copa Libertadores, the biggest club competition in South America.
Yet as much as this move was made to accommodate Montero, it can also give Sounders FC a chance to see what it can do with a different look up top. As productive as Montero has been, he has not always meshed well with Seattle’s other forwards, and in four postseason appearances, he has yet to score a goal. And it seemed telling that, needing two goals to prevent playoff elimination last season, Schmid decided to pull Montero, the franchise leader in goals, with nearly 20 minutes remaining in the game.
The addition of Eddie Johnson, who led the team with 14 goals last season, as well as a desire to see where the team can go taking a slightly different direction, may well have made Seattle more willing to listen to offers for Montero this year than in years past.
“Look, it’s been four years,” Hanauer said. “We haven’t quite gotten to the top of the mountain that we’re after. Certainly, reengineering the roster is part of our thinking. It wasn’t like a direct correlation where we thought, ‘OK, let’s move Fredy because that’s going to make us better,’ but it gives us an opportunity to prove that we can restructure the roster and get better, and that’s what we hope to and intend to do.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.