With the Seattle Sounders down to a final training game Saturday, coach Sigi Schmid volunteered which players improved their position through five weeks of preseason.
“I think Micheal Azira has certainly helped himself with a good camp here,” he said. “Obviously with (defensive midfielder Osvaldo) Alonso being injured now, it’s an open spot a little bit. I think (Cristian) Roldan has stepped forward a little bit more, so that’s been a positive thing for us as well. I think (Chad) Barrett has had some good outings. Kenny (Cooper) has gotten some goals for us. (Andres) Correa has shown that he can be an option for us at left back. I think all those guys have broken through a little bit.”
Roldan is a rookie midfielder, the Sounders’ top draft pick out of the University of Washington. Barrett and Cooper are returning veteran forwards. But Azira topped the list, and he smiled when he was told.
“If I make myself better, the team gets better too,” he said. “It’s all about the team, it’s not about me. The team’s interest comes first, so I try to work as hard as I can for the team.”
Perhaps in part because of that attitude, Azira’s position is vastly improved over a year ago.
At this time last preseason, the Sounders were concluding the Carolina Challenge Cup in Charleston, South Carolina. And as that tournament wound down, Azira didn’t know if at its conclusion he would fly to Seattle and MLS or be left behind to continue with the Charleston Battery of the third-division United Soccer League.
It turned out that he headed Northwest. Over his rookie season he appeared in 14 games, including six starts.
Now, Azira is working toward his second MLS season as the likely opening-day starter, as Alonso is recovering from groin surgery and not expected back in time for New England’s March 8 visit to CenturyLink Field.
“It hasn’t been different,” he said. “You always have new faces in the camp and people looking for contracts and stuff. I was in that same situation. It’s amazing to be here, to be part of this group. They’re great guys, great (staff), and it’s been amazing so far. We look forward to this beginning of the season. And we hope everyone who’s injured can recover soon and so we have everyone, because we need everyone.”
The Sounders still face one test before breaking camp: a 4 p.m. Saturday match — and Desert Diamond Cup rematch — with Sporting Kansas City.
The teams played last Saturday, with Kansas City winning, 3-2. Schmid had hoped to avoid playing the same team twice during the four-round tournament. A rematch became unavoidable when the only two teams the Sounders haven’t played — Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids — finished 1-2 and were paired in the final.
“If we would have won the New England game (Wednesday), we would have been playing in the finals against Salt Lake,” Schmid said. “And that would have been good to play somebody that we haven’t played before. But those two teams are the two highest teams in terms of point totals, so they play each other. Playing Kansas City is better than playing New England again, because we meet them in a week. And certainly we didn’t want to play FC Tucson again. So it all worked out, and it will be good.”