The Seattle Sounders returned Tuesday to the Starfire Sports Complex, where the defending MLS champions began training after an offseason somewhat shorter than a Super Bowl halftime show.
Sorry, I’m exaggerating. The Sounders actually enjoyed 44 days of gloating before embarking on the challenge to repeat. Small chance any players forgot what their penalty-shootout victory at Toronto meant on Dec. 11, but just in case, the MLS Cup was brought out of the Starfire display case to remind them.
“From July 31 on, we were the best team in the league,” general manager Garth Lagerwey said Tuesday. “We averaged two points a game over 20 games. That’s not a hot streak. That’s not going on a run. That’s being the best team for two-thirds of the season.”
Now it’s a much different season, for a slightly different team. Absent from the roster are such mainstays as midfielder Erik Friberg, who has resumed his career in Sweden, and defender Zach Scott, who retired. New to the roster are midfielder Harry Shipp and forward Will Bruin, acquired in allocation-money trades. Another addition is assistant coach Gonzalo Pineda, back with the Sounders after working as a broadcaster last year in Mexico.
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Meanwhile, 10 young developmental-league players have been invited to camp as preseason guests, hoping to convince coach Brian Schmetzer they’re worthy of a more secure role on the big club.
Despite the brevity of the break, Schmetzer had an opportunity to reflect on the remarkable 2016 season: rallying from long shots on the playoff fringe — their four-month ride on cruise control cost Sigi Schmid his job — to league champions seemingly revitalized by a coach initially appointed as an interim replacement.
“When I first got the job halfway through last year, I didn’t have time to think,” Schmetzer said. “So now I’m thinking, how do I — how do we — get back to the MLS Cup, with a chance to win for a second year in a row? We all know that MLS is extremely brutal. The last two championship teams before us didn’t even make the playoffs. That is our challenge for this year.”
Before the Sounders took the field, Schmetzer held a team meeting similar to an orientation for college freshmen.
“I put a PowerPoint presentation together for the guys to introduce some of the coaching staff — people they need to deal with every day,” Schmetzer said. “The last clip was a highlight of Zach Scott. And then Zach came from behind everybody — nobody knew he was there — and it was pretty cool.
“Zach told them, ‘Hey, you guys, you really need to grab onto this. Your career is short and real jobs aren’t that fun. Make sure you appreciate what you’re going here.’ It was a good way to kick this off, because they get tired of me standing here and talking.”
A few minutes later, the Sounders were back to business on a cold, damp morning not unlike their last practice at Starfire. A conspicuous difference was the presence of star striker Clint Dempsey, who spent the brunt of the team’s second-half playoff run on the sideline after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat.
Although doctors have given Dempsey clearance to participate in practices, the timetable on his regular-season availability remains vague.
Midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro — the Uruguayan dynamo whose arrival in Seattle precisely coincided with the Sounders’ July 31 jump-start — has no medical issues, but he’s been granted a few extra days to prolong the sports world’s shortest vacation.
Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, nursing an ankle injury sustained during a recent tryout for the U.S. men’s national team, was held out of practice for what might best be called humanitarian reasons. If a championship game were at stake this week, he’d probably figure out a way to play.
But as it’s January, in preparation for a schedule that might not conclude until December, there’s no urgency.
“We just played an 11-month season,” Lagerwey said. “With the veteran guys that play a lot of games, to some degree there is no need to push them back. What we want them to do is to be healthy and stay in the lineup once they are back.”
Staying healthy is an obvious priority for a team tasked to defend a league trophy. So is motivation. A parade, followed by a civic square celebration as cheerful and giddy as any New Year’s Eve countdown, might be warm soup for the soul, but not so good for the competitive heart.
If the Sounders manage to achieve what the last two MLS champs haven’t — if they qualify the playoffs, and stay in the playoffs — Zach Scott will deserve credit for the eloquence of his pep talk.
Embrace the opportunity, fellas. Real jobs aren’t that fun.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath