Sounders: In no shape yet for a playoff
Just ahead of Sounders FC's opener Saturday at the Clink for their fifth Major League Soccer regular season, it feels as if the club is in the middle of a checked swing. Wrong sport, but you get the idea. They haven't taken a full cut. Yet general manager Adrian Hanauer claims to be close to a rip.
In the swift person of Nigerian striker Obafemi Akinwumni Martins, the Sounders think they may have found the guy they've never had — an international-class striker in his prime, capable of transforming the offense.
But Martins’ current team, Levante of Valencia in Spain, is in the playoffs and thus in a poor mood to part with him. Imagine the reaction of fans if the Seahawks surrendered Russell Wilson between playoff games in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta.
Still, Hanauer and the Sounders need a collective drool bucket after describing the 28-year-old veteran of five top-tier European teams. In fact, Sounders owner Joe Roth was passing by our conversation and stuck in his grinning face to hiss, "thisclose," while barely holding apart his thumb and forefinger.
"We think Martins would score a lot of goals in MLS," Hanauer said after smiling nervously at his boss. "We think he would pair fantastically with Eddie Johnson. He's a very entertaining player fans would like. Ultimately we're trying to win a championship, and anything we can do to get over the hump is open game."
The unclimbed hump in question – an MLS Cup championship – has been nearly the only mark against the Sounders in their run from expansion newbies to perennial playoff team. The team is a business success beyond Seattle’s imagination. Or, for that matter, the rest of American sports.
Here’s the catch: Because of the conservative MLS salary cap (This year, $3 million), the Sounders have only one significant way to use their financial muscle: paying salary premiums for up to three designated players.
And, they haven't had premium luck in snagging a player with enough of his prime left to create the impact that David Beckham and Robbie Keane have in Los Angeles. You may recall that the expensive savvy of the UK stars was cited as the difference in the Galaxy's ouster of the Sounders from the playoffs Nov. 18, just after Seattle broke through against Real Salt Lake to advance in the playoffs for the first time.
In Martins, they see the straw that will stir the rave-green drink, but negotiations have been tough because Levante knows what it has, and probably smells the urgency from the Sounders.
"There have been reports from the player that he wants to leave," Hanauer said. "We're encouraged by the fact that he potentially wants to be in Seattle. As far as a contract, I can't comment. But in the world of football, money talks. At some number, I'm sure they would be fine losing the player."
If and when Roth & Co. throw down the proper coin and pull Martins through the international transfer window, they’ll also likely buy out the contract of Christian Tiffert, one of their three designated players. The German midfielder made $625,000 last year — more than 10 times the average non-DP MLS salary — but wasn't part of training camp the last couple of weeks. By league rule, a decision to keep or buy out Tiffert's contract must be made by opening day.
Even if Tiffert goes and Martins signs, he won't be here by 7:30 p.m. Saturday for the match with Montreal. Nor will the club's most valuable player from 2012, Ozzie Alonso (still paying the penalty for a red card in the cranky finale against the Galaxy), star striker Fredy Montero (loaned to a club in his native Colombia) or Jeff Parke, voted the team's best defender in 2012 (traded to Philadelphia for money and a draft pick).
The Sounders are down potentially four prime-time starters and two of their replacements are unlikely to see action. Midfielder and designated player Shalrie Joseph was acquired from Chivas USA, but he is 34 and woefully out of shape. Another newcomer, Djimi Traore, is 33 and just arrived this week from France, where he played for Marseille and is unlikely to be ready for Saturday action.
Even Hanauer wasn't ready to kid anyone about their fitness. "Joseph and Traore are very good signings, but it would be disingenuous to suggest they are in the absolute primes of their careers," he said. "They're towards the end, but they are going to add some leadership that we [coach Sigi Schmid and sporting director Chris Henderson] have been talking about for four years that will be good for our team."
Aside from the work of goalie Kasey Keller and his successor, Michael Gspurning, the Sounders have lacked a take-charge guy who plays in the middle of things.
"We've searched over time for players who have experience in championships and in leadership," Hanauer said. "As an expansion team, you're just going to do that, generally. To be honest, we've looked for that every year, and haven't quite found the players to step right in. With Shalrie and Djimi, we have that."
Still, it's hard to argue that the Sounders are a little Mariners-like in their inability to dazzle a constituency that feels it deserves better.
Coming off a 15-8-11 season and 56 points that was seventh-best in MLS, Hanauer cites two 25-year-old midfielders as a reason to think the Sounders have championship-level talent: Steve Zakuani, fully fit after his broken leg, and Lamar Neagle, the Federal Way prodigy back home again.
"We're a couple of bad bounces and maybe a substitution away from competing in the MLS Cup," he said. "For us to make a massive reaction – that we have miles to go to get over the hump – would not have been right. To get as close as we did and miss . . . we have a good chance to get there again and beyond."
In the face of only words, however, the hump remains the mountain.