Primed and ready - Seattle Sounders looking to start and stay strong in 2017

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After winning the MLS Cup a year ago despite some serious struggles, the Sounders look primed to open 2017 as one of the favorites.


GOAL 2017 MLS SEASON PREVIEW

For the 2016 MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders, nothing came easy.

Obafemi Martins was sold just before the start of the season. The only coach the MLS version of the club had ever known, Sigi Schmid, was replaced midseason. And two of the team’s biggest stars, Clint Dempsey and Roman Torres, missed extended time through injuries. Simply put, the Sounders had their share of trials and tribulations.

As the 2017 season draws near, the Sounders, having fought through the rocky patches of 2016, look primed and ready to come out and defend their crown.

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One of the biggest reasons for the optimism is the possibility of a full season of Dempsey partnering with 2016 midseason signing Nicolas Lodeiro.

Lodeiro arrived in late July, making the sample size of what he and Dempsey look like together very small, but it’s also very impressive. In four starts together, the pair racked up six goals and five assists between them, with the Sounders picking up 10 of a possible 12 points.

“He’s a great player who really helps the team keep possession and creates opportunities for the team and for himself in the attacking third,” Dempsey said of Lodeiro in an interview with Goal. “He also works really hard defensively.

“He’s really fun to play with and I look forward to connecting with him more this season.”

Jordan Morris Cristian Roldan Seattle Sounders

That partnership, however, is just part of the equation. The Sounders experienced a lot of growing pains in 2016, blooding in new starters in several key positions and struggling to find an identity for much of the year.

The 2017 side looks much more settled, having pinned down their identity under new coach Brian Schmetzer.

Lodeiro and Dempsey are joined by a slew of MLS veterans. Chad Marshall, Brad Evans, Osvaldo Alonso and Stefan Frei have enjoyed extended stays in Seattle, Joevin Jones is heading into his second year with the club, and the unproven prospects of 2016 are now veterans in their own right.

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Cristian Roldan, heading into his third year, seems to have cemented his spot beside Alonso in the center of the park, and 2016 MLS Rookie of the Year Jordan Morris enters his second season having largely lived up to the outrageous expectations that come along with playing for the U.S. national team while still in college.

No longer viewed as young players with questions about how they fit, both are now integral parts of the team.

“They’re huge for us,” Dempsey said of his two young teammates. “They were a big part of what we were able to do on the field. The played a big part in terms of helping the team make the playoffs and make that playoff run that got an MLS Cup.

“I’m glad to see them improving and they’ll be even stronger for us this season. It just adds more depth and adds more weapons to your team. The future looks bright for both of these guys.”

Roman Torres MLS Seattle Sounders 10232016

Then there’s the case of Torres, who also proved to be a massive boost for the Sounders.

Much like the Dempsey-Lodeiro partnership in the attack, the lack of large sample size makes it somewhat hard to judge just how good Torres and center back partner Chad Marshall could be through the course of a full season, but the early returns are pretty impressive.

In the 12 games Marshall and Torres started together, the Sounders gave up just eight goals and kept six clean sheets.

“When Roman Torres got back there, it just gave us a more dominating presence there in terms of his physicality and what he brings alongside Chad as a center back pairing,” Dempsey said.

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Torres, Marshall and left back Jones all return, leaving just one question to answer along the back line. Overall, the Sounders enter 2017 with only two spots in the starting XI — a midfielder and the right back — not fully settled.

All things considered, that’s a vast improvement on where the side was on opening day 2016.

“I feel like we still have a core group of guys who were a part of the run that got the team to win the MLS Cup final,” Dempsey said. “We’re just looking to build on that and add some pieces.

“It’s always unfortunate to lose guys like Nelson Valdez, Andreas Ivanschitz, Tyrone Mears and Erik Friberg, who all played a big part in helping the team win MLS Cup. But unfortunately you can’t always keep everybody.”

While the Sounders haven’t been overly active in bringing in new pieces, the club has added a couple of MLS veterans in Will Bruin and Harry Shipp, while also signing Swedish veteran Gustav Svensson to add depth in the midfield.

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It’s a set of changes that are almost like-for-like with the veterans who left the club this winter. Factor in the versatile Brad Evans — who could well fill the right back slot — and veteran defender Darrius Barnes, who is in on trial, and the Sounders have comfortably rebuilt the depth in the team without filling their vacant designated player spot.

It all adds up to a club that looks set to make a run at another title. But once again, there’s no way it’s going to be easy.

“You know you’ve got a target on your back after the team won MLS Cup,” Dempsey said. “It’s just about using it as motivation and knowing you’re going to get your opponents’ best.”

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