Ever since the Seattle Sounders made a surprising playoff appearance as an expansion team in 2009, they've been considered one of the teams expected to contend for MLS Cup. Although they've made the playoffs every year since -- tied with the LA Galaxy for longest active streak -- a spot in the final continues to elude them. Might this year finally mark the end of that futility?
No one seems to be pegging the Sounders as favorites, but this is a team that still features as strong of a starting XI as anyone else. There are accomplished veterans at all the key positions and the only two outfield starters younger than 30 have extensive national team experience.
But that also gives a vibe of "MLS Cup or bust," and it's growing increasingly difficult for the team to resist seriously overhauling the staff and roster each time they fail to win the big prize.
2015 record 15-13-6, 4th place in Western Conference
2015 Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals
Key additions Jordan Morris, Joevin Jones
Key losses Obafemi Martins, Marco Pappa, Lamar Neagle
Projected Starting XI (4-3-3) Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Chad Marshall, Brad Evans, Tyrone Mears; Andreas Ivanschitz, Osvaldo Alonso, Erik Friberg; Clint Dempsey, Nelson Haedo Valdez, Jordan Morris
Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris. You've got the former Captain America and the guy who just might be his heir apparent. This is a team that represents the present and future of the United States national team, so basically it's your patriotic duty to support them. They also have goal-post mounted flamethrowers that go off every time the team scores, which is nice.
The timing of Obafemi Martins' departure could not have been much worse, coming just days before the start of the season. Martins was one of the best players in MLS and replacing him will be no easy task. If Dempsey struggles to produce without his strike partner or Morris is slow to adapt to the professional game, this could be a very frustrating season for Sounders fans.
Seattle took advantage of MLS scheduling flexibility, managing to avoid most of the international dates that contributed to last summer's swoon. So rather than play a B-squad for nearly two months, the best players should be playing. Without that 2-9-0 stretch last year, the Sounders looked like one of the best teams in MLS history. A top 2 spot and rest for the old-timers and home-field for the penalty kick round would have been huge. This year they should be much more consistent.
The 4-3-3 working. The primary shift is not with the forward band (Seattle's always had one outside mid that plays like a forward), but on the central midfield. Osvaldo Alonso, Erik Friberg and Andreas Ivanschitz have the opportunity to control possession with this new system. If it works the club will be able to kill time through simple possession while maintaining the quick strike offense that worked well in 2014-15.