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Seattle Sounders know 2011 season is make-or-break time

Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller, at 41 years old, hopes to have something to shout about before retiring at the end of the season. (Associated Press)
Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller, at 41 years old, hopes to have something to shout about before retiring at the end of the season. (Associated Press)

SEATTLE – Urgency is rarely associated with an organization in just its third year of existence and already with two titles in the trophy case.

Try explaining that to the Seattle Sounders FC.

The most successful Major League Soccer franchise off the field has yet to meet its lofty expectations on it despite a pair of U.S. Open Cup titles and playoff appearances in each of its first two seasons.

Seattle expected to play for a league title by now. The reality of not getting there is making the Sounders’ third season a tipping point in the infancy of the franchise.

Win now – with the added pressure of trying to send out goalkeeper Kasey Keller and striker Blaise Nkufo with a title – or expect changes.

“If it doesn’t happen now, then it’s a true statement. If it doesn’t happen now, then it’s time to start thinking about new personnel,” Seattle midfielder Brad Evans said.

That was a message delivered by coach Sigi Schmid on Seattle’s first day of training, that Year 3 would be the deciding factor in how the franchise moves forward. Schmid knows the importance, having won an MLS Cup in his third season with Columbus before taking over the Sounders.

Seattle’s starting 11 players rival anyone in the league. The Sounders have maximized their spending ability with three designated players on the roster in 2011 and play before the largest, and arguably most rabid, fan base in the league.

But there are concerns, especially from Schmid, about how Seattle has played in the preseason. Their strikers rarely scored, their defense allowed soft goals and while their midfielders controlled play, the results didn’t follow.

“It’s been a long preseason and we have had some ups and downs, for sure, in terms of our performance,” Schmid said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about being ready for March 15, that’s the most important thing for us.”

Seattle opens the MLS season on Tuesday night hosting Los Angeles.

If nothing else, Seattle should avoid some of the personnel drama that followed for the first half of last season when the Sounders appeared to be one of the biggest flops in the league, only to rally in the second half of the year. The Sounders went 10-2-3 over their final 15 league matches, seven points better than any other playoff team from 2010, but had the misfortune of being matched against Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs. The Sounders were dispatched 3-1 in the opening-round, total-goals series against the Galaxy.

“L.A., last year they beat us because of their experience. That game maybe came a year too soon for some of us,” Seattle’s Steve Zakuani said. “I think with a year under our belt, more experience, more maturity we should do better and if we don’t, we’ll hold our hands up and take the criticism.”

Zakuani is part of an impressive front line that includes young star Fredy Montero and the retiring Nkufo. The Swiss striker arrived in Seattle after the 2010 World Cup on an 18-month contract. No one realized at the time that the length of the contract coincided with Nkufo’s plans to retire at the end of the 2011 season.

Midfield is likely to be where Seattle thrives. Uruguayan Alvaro Fernandez, Cuban Osvaldo Alonso, Swedish arrival Erik Friberg and Evans – when healthy – make the Sounders’ middle among the best around.

In the back, the Sounders welcome back Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, an MLS all-star in 2009 who missed most of last season with a knee injury. Hurtado, Jeff Parke, Leo Gonzalez and James Riley anchor a strong defense but one that lacks significant depth after top reserve Patrick Ianni.

And there’s Keller, who at age 41 is returning for one final season in the hopes of going out with a title – or at the very least winning the Cascadia Cup from new rivals Portland and Vancouver.

March 15Los Angeles6:30
19at New York4:30
April 2at San Jose7:30
16at Philadelphia1
22at Colorado6:30
May 4at D.C. 4:30
7at Columbus4:30
21Kansas City7
28at Salt Lake6
June 4at Chicago5:30
18at Toronto 4
23New York7
26 New England1
July 4at Los Angeles7:30
10at Portland2
30at Houston5:30
Aug. 6at Kansas City5:30
20at Dallas6
Sept. 10Salt Lake1
24at Vancouver7:30
Oct. 1at New England4:30
15San Jose7:30
22at Chivas7:30

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