Sounders Insider

Three questions at close of Sounders' third season

Q: Was the Sounders’ third season a success?

A: By most definitions it was. The club went 18-7-9, which was the best of their three seasons and second best in MLS this year. They won a third straight U.S. Open Cup. They advanced out of group play in CONCACAF Champions League.

The Sounders did it despite the retirement of designated player Blaise Nkufo – remember him? – and almost season-long injuries to Steve Zakuani and O’Brian White. The club compensated by signing Mauro Rosales and developing Lamar Neagle.

They also built on their MLS-record attendance for the third straight season, this time drawing an average of 38,496 per home game. On Oct. 15, they set a club record for a regular-season game as 64,140 turned out to honor Kasey Keller. On Nov. 2, they set a club record for a playoff game when 36,021 showed up to watch what turned out to be the final game of the season.

And that’s about the only way that this season wasn’t a success. In their third straight try, the Sounders again were unable to extend their season beyond the first round.

Making the playoffs seemed quite an achievement in the expansion season, and maybe even the next. But this time around the early exit was a stain. And it will remain so until it is erased by advancing.

Q: Does 2012 figure to be the year that happens?

A: The club has improved each season, so it’s easy to project more improvement ahead. Coach Sigi Schmid is optimistic enough to set Supporters Shield as one of his team’s goals.

But turning that into reality depends on several factors that aren’t yet known – or at least not yet announced: Who will replace goalkeeper Kasey Keller? How will the defense be rebuilt in the absence of James Riley, who was lost in the expansion draft, and defender Tyson Wahl, who was traded. Will Zakuani and White return to health? How soon and how close to 100 percent? Will players such as Mike Fucito and Servando Carrasco make the kind of leap Neagle did this season? Will Neagle step forward all the way to stardom?

Even with positive answers, the recently announced changes in MLS structure will make that more difficult.

For one thing, the unbalanced schedule means more games against the much tougher Western Division.

Even the path to the playoffs seems more precarious because the elimination of wildcards means only the top five Western teams will get in, only the top three are assured of a place in the conference semifinals, and only one can make it through to MLS Cup.

Q: What are the top priorities for the off-season?

A: First and foremost, the club must replace Keller. The Sounders have never had to go into a season without an established veteran star behind them in goal, and it may be March before they fully realize how important that was.

The loss of two defenders on Wednesday suddenly moves an overhaul of the Sounders back line from optional to necessary.

The club also can hope that Zakuani and White will be productive by March, but it could be dangerous to sit out the offseason on that assumption.Non-roster issues include the laying of a new FieldTurf pitch in February.

And the business side of the organization has about 2,200 new seats to sell due to the club’s decision to open the Hawks Nest section in the north end, increasing standard capacity to about 38,500.

Pretty full to-do list with under two months till training camp.