Today is part 2 of the 7 day countdown to the first match of the 2012 Sounders season. Yesterday I highlighted the new players on the defensive side and in goal. Today I’ll take a look at the team’s midfield.
After a season in which the Sounders rose to the top of the league in scoring led by some surprise names in the midfield, the hope around Seattle is that they can again provide offense, despite coming in as known quantities in 2012.
The Sounders entered 2011 with a midfield so stacked with talent that some fans (myself included) were wondering how they were going to fit all of it on the field. The team returned one of the best holding midfielders in the league (Osvaldo Alonso), one of the most exciting young players in MLS (Steve Zakuani), a young Designated Player who had played for the Uruguay squad that had finished 4th in the World Cup (Alvaro Fernandez), and a productive when healthy attacking midfielder (Brad Evans). They also picked up a new Swedish player (Erik Friberg, now back in Sweden), drafted the player they pegged to be Alonso’s backup (Servando Carrasco), and added a mystery trialist during training camp (as the legend goes, he turned out to be Mauro Rosales). Unfortunately, that depth was tested almost immediately, starting with one fateful play in Colorado (if you haven’t seen this, I should warn you it’s tough to watch).
Losing a rising player who had scored 10 goals the year before and had already chipped in two goals in the five games prior to the injury would have been devastating for most MLS clubs. The Sounders were not only able to adjust to Zakuani’s absence, but the team’s midfield became the catalyst for their league-leading goal scoring output. Of the 56 goals scored by the team, 30 came from positions that are traditionally considered “secondary scorers.” Fernandez finished second on the team with nine goals, and Rosales, Evans, and the now departed Lamar Neagle tied for third with five apiece.
Rosales came out of relative obscurity to become the MLS Newcomer of the Year with 13 assists to go with the five goals, bringing along a flashy and creative style with him that lifted the entire team to greater heights. He plays a style akin to a point guard who can beat any defender off the dribble. He causes entire defenses to collapse on him while he effortlessly finds an open man with a pass most would need a protractor to find the correct angle for. Once Schmid inserted him into the lineup on the right side every week to link up with James Riley, they became a devastating duo defenses had trouble slowing down. The partnership he will form with new right back Adam Johansson should prove to be even more lethal this year.
Now stop me if you’ve heard this before, but 2012 could be the breakout year for Brad Evans. Evans has spent much of the past two seasons on the sidelines due to various injuries, including the ankle injury that forced him from the field in the second leg of the playoff with Real Salt Lake. Despite all the games he’s missed the last couple years (and there have been plenty), when Evans has played for the Sounders, he has produced at an impressive clip. In 2010 he only managed to play 12 games, but with a goal and three assists he had an offensive impact in every third game. In 2011 he was on the field for 20 games, and with the increased time on the field he finished third on the team in both goals and assists with five, good for a goal or an assist in every other game he played. Evans is a player that should benefit from having more dangerous strikers ahead of him. Teams will have to respect forwards Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson and that should free up lanes for Evans to make his late runs into the box looking for crosses or loose balls to pounce on.
Alonso’s play at the defensive midfield position was so sound that by the end of the season he was starting to garner attention for MVP votes from national soccer writers, despite playing a position that rarely if ever gets the recognition necessary to win awards. As important as Rosales and Montero are to the team, Alonso is perhaps asked to do the most. At his holding midfield spot he must cover the back four from counter attacks, especially when the outside backs join in the offense as often as the Sounders’ do. He drops back to receive the ball from the defenders and begins the breakout up field, and once the team is attacking he will loiter at the top of the box waiting for a loose ball to blast toward the net. He was voted the MVP of the team by his teammates after the 2011 season, and he will be just as vital to the 2012 Sounders, especially when they play against other high powered offenses.
Fernandez will most likely get the majority of the starts on the left side of the field, where he found a consistent starting spot after Zakuani’s injury. Although rumors have popped up of him looking for opportunities in Europe, he has developed chemistry with the other components of the team’s younger core, like Montero and Alonso. Christian Sivebæk was brought in from the top league in Denmark (where he has played professionally since he was 18) to provide depth in the midfield. He is a big target at 6’3” (something the team needs), and is one of the faster players on the team. Schmid has said he likes Sivebæk on the left, but could also play him up front if needed.
The 2012 edition of the Sounder midfield returns most of its key components in Rosales, Alonso, Fernandez, and Evans, and can expect the addition of Sivebæk and Zakuani’s return (the team is aiming for May or June) to boost its production even more. If the forwards can hold up their end of the goal scoring and the midfield can keep its pace up, the Sounders should have no problem leading the league in goals again.