Sounders’ midfield crowded with talent

  • By John Boyle Herald Writer
  • Friday, March 1, 2013 11:50pm
  • SportsSports

TUKWILA — The Seattle Sounders open their season today with a few questions, like what to do at forward and how to fill a hole in their defense.

However, when it comes to the midfield, there are, if anything, too many answers. The main problem there for coach Sigi Schmid will be finding enough minutes to go around for one of the league’s deepest and most talented midfields.

“We have four talented (center) midfielders, so week in and week out, we might be changing it up, but at the end of the day, all of us want to win and all of us want to compete, and that’s going to make this team better,” said Shalrie Joseph, Seattle’s newly acquired designated player.

The competition for midfield minutes won’t be quite as intense in tonight’s Major League Soccer season opener against Montreal. Joseph is still getting into shape and Osvaldo Alonso is serving a one-game suspension.

More perplexing to Schmid for tonight and the near future is what to do about forward and defense.

Reports out of Spain indicate that Seattle’s pursuit of forward Obafemi Martins has hit a snag. While that deal still will likely get done eventually, Seattle in the short-term lacks a top-notch striker to pair up front with Eddie Johnson.

And the Sounders’ back line also could be shaky to open the season. Jeff Parke, the team’s best defender last year, was traded to Philadelphia, and Patrick Ianni, the presumed other starting center back with Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, fractured his foot in the preseason and is still weeks away from being back. Newly signed veteran defender Djimi Traore also will factor in eventually, but he is still playing his way into game-shape.

When all that is sorted out, Seattle’s roster should be in excellent shape, especially with a midfield where some very talented players will be sitting on the bench on any given day.

Alonso and Joseph figure to eventually be the starters at center mid assuming Joseph can recapture anything close to the form that made him a seven-time MLS All-Star while in New England. But what does that mean for Brad Evans, a regular starter for four seasons with Seattle? Or for Andy Rose, who showed a ton of promise as a rookie?

Evans and Rose may well start the opener for Seattle, but eventually find themselves battling for playing time. And that’s not even mentioning Servando Carrasco, another capable defensive midfielder, or Christian Tiffert, last year’s big midseason acquisition who is expected to have his contract bought out before kickoff of today’s game.

“There’s going to be four of us competing for those two spots,” Joseph said. “That’s going to make practice fun and that’s going to make each and every one of us better.”

And that’s just the central midfield. On the flanks, the Sounders likely will start Steve Zakuani at left wing and Mauro Rosales on the right for the bulk of their games, though Rosales could also see time at forward.

So, where does that leave Mario Martinez, a midseason signing last year who has been a standout this preseason, and one of the most dangerous players on the field when playing for Honduras during World Cup qualifying? The Sounders also reacquired Lamar Neagle this offseason, a player who came on strong for them late in the 2011 season, and have Alex Caskey, who showed flash as a rookie and is enjoying a strong preseason campaign. The way Martinez has played of late, it would seem foolish to not find some way to get him significant minutes, but at whose expense?

Again, too much talent is a good problem to have, but it certainly will make figuring out a lineup every week a challenging task for Schmid.

“We have a very good squad,” Zakuani said. “We’ve had that every year, it’s just different people. … We have a very deep squad, and the personnel gives me confidence we’re going to have a good team.”

With a long season that features not just 34 league games, but play in the CONCACAF Champions League and the U.S. Open Cup, there always will be chances for reserves to get into games, and injuries inevitably will be a factor as well. Whether there are enough minutes to keep everyone in the midfield happy remains to be seen.

“I feel like that’s how it’s been every year,” Evans said of having a deep midfield. “Somebody is going to find themselves either not playing the position they want to or they’re going to find themselves on the bench. We’ve found a way to make it work in the past and we’ll do it again.”

Evans in particular can help himself get minutes with his versatility. Once a player set on being a central midfielder, Evans has found himself playing all over the field for the Sounders in the past couple of years, and he recently saw time at right back for the U.S. national team.

“As I’ve said all along, I’ll play anywhere,” he said. “Wherever I find myself, I find myself.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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