How does this team differ from the 2014 version?
Similarities outnumber the differences. Every player who scored a goal for the Sounders last season returns. Starting forwards and goals leaders Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey are back, as are prime reserves Chad Barrett and Kenny Cooper. The situation is largely the same at midfield. Changes appear at the back end, where there could be two new defensive starters and two new goalkeepers behind returning No. 1 Stefan Frei. Another difference is that longtime midfielder Brad Evans seems to have successfully — and therefore permanently — shifted to starting center back alongside Chad Marshall.
What key players are missing?
The only regular starter who didn’t return is right back DeAndre Yedlin, who transferred to Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League. Otherwise, the missing guys are role players such as defender Jalil Anibaba (who appeared in 16 games), defender Djimi Traore (15), forward Sean Okoli (three), forward Tristan Bowen (two) and midfielder/forward David Estrada (one).
Who is the key newcomer?
That might be a guy wearing slacks rather than shorts: general manager Garth Lagerwey, who was hired during the offseason to assume most of the day-to-day duties previously handled by minority owner Adrian Hanauer. Lagerwey comes from Real Salt Lake, which made the playoffs all seven seasons he was there while advancing to two MLS Cups and winning one. So far, there are no indications the transition has been anything but smooth.
Who are the key new players in camp?
The most obvious is English veteran Tyrone Mears, who has cleanly assumed Yedlin’s right back spot. He likes to get forward, as Yedlin did. But he doesn’t do it with Yedlin’s speed — few do. The upside is he may be a more reliable defender. Also, keep an eye on the opposite side of the defense, where 21-year-old Andres Correa seems the heir to the spot long held by 34-year-old Leo Gonzalez. The question is whether that transition occurs this season. Other newcomers who could see MLS minutes include top draft pick Cristian Roldan and — in a pinch — veteran goalkeeper Troy Perkins. It could also be interesting to see if forward Kevin Parsemain gets much chance during the regular season after showing a knack for scoring goals over his second straight preseason.
How did the team look during the preseason?
Not that good. The Sounders went 2-0 against NCAA and PDL teams. But they drew against their only NASL opponent, and went 0-3-1 against MLS clubs. They ended the Desert Diamond Cup by giving up three goals to Sporting Kansas City, two to New England and then one in the SKC rematch. It should be noted that the Sounders experimented a lot: a 3-5-2 formation for half of the first Kansas City match and a reserve-heavy lineup against the Revs. And, of course, coach Sigi Schmid is correct when he points out how misleading preseason results can be. But the eye test was no better than the scores, especially on the defensive end. That’s where the Sounders needed to improve. But the personnel didn’t change dramatically, and so far neither have the results.
What are the expectations for the regular season?
The Sounders return most everyone who contributed to winning the 2014 Supporters’ Shield. Most of those guys are in their upper 20s or lower 30s. That generally means they’re in their prime, or maybe slipping past it. The window for this Sounders roster is slowly closing. But it remains open enough for 2015 to be special. The team should expect to comfortably claim one of the six available playoff spots, even in a Western Conference upgraded by the additions of Kansas City and Houston and the subtraction of Chivas USA. However, another Supporters’ Shield or U.S. Open Cup seems less likely as the club could well choose to rest regulars more often for its higher priorities: CONCACAF Champions League and the MLS Cup.
Is this the season the Sounders win — or at least make — the MLS Cup?
That question could translate as, “Is this the season that the Sounders don’t surrender an away goal off the post in the 54th minute of a playoff game eight months from now?’ That could be how little separated them from the 2014 MLS Cup. All that seems sure right now is that the Sounders rank among the most talented teams in MLS and should make the playoffs with a friendly seed. After that, it comes down to a combination of health, quality, poise and luck in the right quantities at the right times.