Expectations are always high when the Seattle Sounders are concerned, but for Sigi Schmid, being given another season to chase an MLS Cup has turned the upcoming 2014 season into a make-or-break campaign for the veteran coach.
That would explain why the Sounders have been the busiest and most aggressive team in Major League Soccer since the season ended a week ago. They have already pulled off a flurry of trades and are expected to make more deals in the coming weeks.
Changes were always destined to come to a Sounders roster that woefully underachieved last season, but Schmid and general manager Adrian Hanauer rattled off a series of moves early in the offseason that already has Seattle looking like a much different team just a month after the Sounders saw their season ended brutally in a playoff loss to the Portland Timbers.
The Sounders bid farewell to goalkeeper Michael Gspurning and traded for Stefan Frei, a highly regarded prospect for Toronto FC before a broken fibula and torn ankle ligament cost him the 2012 season and then his starting job in 2013.
The swap from Gspurning to Frei not only makes Seattle younger, it saves the Sounders money, which is as important a goal this offseason as revamping the roster is.
That is the trickiest part of Operation Sounders Overhaul, re-tooling a roster while also cutting costs, but without sacrificing quality.
Yes, that is much easier said this done, and pulling it off is going to take every ounce of salary cap and MLS player pool mastery Schmid and Hanauer have between them.
A major step in cutting costs was parting ways with midfielders Mauro Rosales and Steve Zakuani. Lamar Neagle's outstanding 2013 made Zakuani expendable while Rosales was shipped off to Chivas USA after being treated as a castoff for much of the 2013 season.
Then you have the biggest cost-cutting move of the winter, a move the Sounders haven't made yet, but one the entire league knows is coming. Seattle will eventually deal Eddie Johnson, possibly this week, and not only will his departure free up cap room, but the eventual deal is almost assured to bring Seattle sorely needed allocation money.
Johnson's fate was sealed in Seattle not by a lack of production, but because the Sounders simply can't afford him. Johnson wants a new deal, and wants Designated Player money, but Seattle handed captain and ace midfielder Osvaldo Alonso the team's remaining DP slot in 2014.
With no DP slot to give, and a desperate need to clean up a messy salary cap situation, trading Johnson became the only move for a Seattle team that will still feature Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Lamar Neagle in the attack.
How much of a foregone conclusion is Johnson's departure? How else do you explain the acquisitions of center back Chad Marshall from Columbus and forward Kenny Cooper from FC Dallas? Even with Columbus eating some of Marshall's expensive 2014 salary, landing the former MLS Defender of the Year still took some serious salary cap gymnastics that suggest Seattle is confident about landing the major haul for Eddie Johnson that the team has been asking for.
Though their roster retooling isn't over, the question already being asked is whether the Sounders busy winter has made them a better team. Does replacing Johnson, Rosales, Zakuani, Gsurpning and Adam Moffatt with Marshall, Cooper and Frei make the Sounders stronger?
It could, but the team's acquisitions all carry the type of risk-reward ratio you are bound to deal with when trying both improve a roster and cut salary.
Marshall could very well be the tough and consistent center back the Sounders have lacked since Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's first season in Seattle, but Marshall's skills have diminished since his Defender of the Year days and he also carries a major concussion risk.
Cooper is the ultimate feast-or-famine pick, arguably the streakiest player in the league. When he is on, Cooper can be a goal machine , but when he is off he can go months without scoring. Luckily for Seattle, Cooper will operate as a third forward, filling in for Dempsey and Martins when needed.
Then you have Frei, who very well could wind up being most important pick-up of the winter. Before his injuries in 2012, Frei was considered one of the best goalkeeper prospects in the league, a player destined to make a move to Europe despite playing behind an awful defense at Toronto FC.
The year out injured and subsequent emergence of Joe Bendik as a reliable starter made Frei expendable, but also a bit of a risky pick. He has yet to play regularly since the leg issues, but if he can regain his pre-injury form, the Sounders could have one of the steals of the offseason.
Amid all the roster upheaval, it is easy to forgot that Seattle still boasts an impressive nucleus of talent that includes Dempsey, Alonso, Martins, Evans, Neagle and DeAndre Yedlin. It will be up to that nucleus, particularly the team's three DPs, to really carry the load in 2014. But if the Sounders are really going to improve, and seriously contend for an MLS Cup title, they will need their winter overhaul to pay dividends or else it will be someone else doing the wheeling and dealing for Seattle a year from now.