Today is part 3 of the 7 day countdown to the first match of the 2012 Sounders season. Yesterday I looked at the players in the midfield. Today will highlight the search for a striking partner for Fredy Montero.
Fredy Montero after scoring his US Open Cup winning goal
Last season the Sounders led the MLS in goals with an astonishing 56, good for the second highest total in league history (behind the 2007 DC United squad’s 58 goals). The team played the type of attacking soccer fans love to see, with a fast-paced, fluid offense that produced 15 different goal scorers and shot counts often in double figures. Fredy Montero solidified his stake as one of the league’s top strikers in 2011 with his team high 12 goals in league play (18 in all competitions), despite playing the beginning of the year with a broken wrist. Having a talent like Montero who can create something out of nothing is a luxury for a team, but once again the Sounders were unable to find a player who could consistently exploit opposing defenses when too much attention was given to him.
Throughout the three years of the Sounders’ MLS existence, they have lacked a second forward to supplement Montero’s goal scoring. Blaise N’Kufo played solid in his half of a season, but retired unexpectedly the day of last year’s season opener. O’Brian White (acquired in an offseason trade with Toronto) was asked to replace N’Kufo in the starting role. He started seven games, contributing two goals and two assists before doctors discovered blood clotting in his leg. The ensuing surgery and recovery not only knocked him out for the rest of 2011, but there is still no time table on his return. The team’s front office has recently been contemplating putting White on the Injured Reserve list to start the season, or buying out his contract and releasing him so his salary won’t count against their salary cap while he’s unable to play. An announcement should be coming in the next few days.
With White’s status still uncertain the team found themselves in desperate need of another striker, so they made the somewhat unpopular deal to trade up and coming forward Mike Fucito and midfielder Lamar Neagle (two players popular with fans, but unlikely to see significant minutes) for Eddie Johnson (read more about that deal and Johnson’s possible impact here). Johnson scored 11 minutes into his preseason debut with the team, but has been nursing a hamstring injury the last week two weeks. Once he is deemed match-fit by Coach Sigi Schmid, expect Johnson to get the majority of the starts up top with Montero and be the partner Montero has been missing.
Late last year the Sounders acquired Sammy Ochoa via the Allocation Draft, and he was able to provide two goals in the last two games of the season. Now that Ochoa has had a full training camp to get acclimated into the team, he will see more time on the field and should find a niche as a big body that can hold the ball up while others make runs off of him. He also proved he is capable of making decisive runs and finishing them, as evidenced by his goal against San Jose. The trade to acquire Johnson dropped him down a spot on the depth chart, but because the Sounders routinely make deep runs in the Open Cup and qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League he should find ample playing time to make an impact.
The surprise of training camp this season was the emergence of David Estrada at the forward spot. The UCLA product was drafted by the team in 2010, and saw action in only five games last year. Inserted at the top of the formation by Schmid in training camp to find a spot for him, Estrada delivered with three goals. He has the same nonstop work rate that endeared Fucito to the fans, and has already formed a rapport with Montero in their limited time together. He and Ochoa should compete throughout the season for the third forward spot.
Other options include fan favorite and former USL Sounder Roger Levesque, who contributed three of his standard opportunistic goals (and one classic celebration) last season. He has always found ways to work himself into the lineup, but his role on the team will most likely always be as a utility player making spot starts wherever he can, as evidenced by him seeing some time at right back in training camp. Christian Sivebæk was brought in as a midfielder, but Schmid has used him some at forward in camp and was impressed with what he saw. Young players Babayele Sodade and Cordell Cato have experience with their national youth teams, but both are projects that will see most of their time in the reserve league and the beginning stages of the Open Cup and Champions League.
This season’s forwards are a deep group who should give Schmid options not only up top with Montero, but should also have enough talent that Montero could have his work load lightened in the less important matches. Johnson comes into the squad with high expectations, but he should surpass them and give the Sounders the weapon they’ve lacked in years past.