RENTON — For three years, Kasey Keller was the face — and quite often the very loud voice — of Sounders FC soccer.
So when Seattle opened preseason training last weekend, it was admittedly a bit odd to be doing so without Keller, who retired following the 2011 season.
“Yeah (it was a little weird), but I try not to focus on that,” Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid said. “I try to just focus on what’s going on on the field at the moment, but certainly he’s been a constant for us in the history of this franchise, so not having him out there leaves you with a little bit of a strange feeling.”
With Keller gone, newly signed Austrian Michael Gspurning takes over in net, but Schmid won’t be expecting Gspurning, or anyone else for that matter, to fill the void left by Keller. For a young franchise, Keller, who had loads of experience in Europe’s top leagues as well as on the U.S. national team, was exactly the outspoken leader the Sounders needed.
This year will be different, and not just because Keller’s loud voice won’t be dominating practice. This team is more grown up than the one that entered Major League Soccer as an expansion team in 2009. There are a number of leaders on the field who command the respect of their teammates and can, collectively, fill the leadership void left by Keller. Even though he is new, Gspurning will have to help lead and organize the defense — it comes with the job — but he won’t be asked to do it all. Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso has cemented his place as one of the team’s best players and hardest workers, while midfielder Mauro Rosales, despite being relatively new to the team, commands respect in the locker room.
“It’s good if it’s spread around a little bit,” Schmid said of the team’s leadership. “With Kasey, it was good to have him as the face of the franchise as we were establishing our team and our brand and establishing ourselves in the community, that gave us a real good focal point and real good stability. But now I think we’re at a stage where that can be spread around amongst a number of people and that’s also a positive.”
Gspurning may not be expected to fill Keller’s cleats on his own, but he is more than willing to take on a leadership role. He is new to this team and this league, but the 30-year-old Gspurning has played professionally in Europe for more than a decade while also playing for Austria’s national team. Five seasons in Greece made him comfortable taking on a leadership role as a foreigner, and in his short time in Seattle, Gspurning has quickly formed a bond with his new teammates, which should only make the transition easier.
“It was my work to help the new guys coming into the team, so I’m used to it,” he said of his role with Skoda Xanthi, his previous team. “And the guys here make it easy to take my position with the team and help the team. … Everybody is a great teammate. From the first day I love these guys and felt so welcome here.”
And whichever players emerge as the leaders of this team, they will know their job is to take Sounders FC beyond where it has gone the past three seasons. Certainly the franchise has seen more than its share of success, from attendance records to playoff berths to three straight U.S. Open Cup titles, but the fact remains Seattle has yet to win an MLS playoff series in three trips to the postseason. Players say that won’t cut it in 2012.
“We have pressure,” Alonso said. “We have to do that this year. We have to pass through to the next round. That’s the main thing this year for us to do.”
If Gspurning’s first week with the team is any indication, neither he nor anyone else will have to do too much leading to get players fired up. In the week leading up to the opening of training, a group of players met to put in some work in the gym with fitness coach Dave Tenney. Without the prompting, the players followed up that workout with a scrimmage on the practice field. When the first game ended, they played another, then another after that.
“I can really say in all my years of professional soccer, this is really unbelievable,” Gspurning said. “The team is hungry.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.