I had a chat the other day with John Strong, the lead voice of NBC Sports’ MLS coverage, to look ahead to Sounders FC’s 2014 campaign. The interview was conducted before Saturday’s opener, but I feel the content holds up since sweeping conclusions generally aren’t made after one game.
Or maybe my procrastination ruined this one. Anyways, here is a transcript:
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There are some who look at this Sounders team and say there is a clear drop in talent. There are others who view this as improved. How do you view this team after an offseason full of changes?
“I would think if we learned anything from the way the team finished last season and some of the comments that kind of came out in the aftermath, I don’t know that we should be judging things based on just on-paper talent, because clearly there issues of chemistry on and off the field. One of the biggest refrains that Sigi Schmid gave to us, because we saw him practically every game in September and October, was his frustrations that he couldn’t get all his guys together on the practice field and figure out where all the pieces fits, because of injuries and international call-ups.
“Clearly there is something to be said for the effect of chemistry beyond just looking at names on a piece of paper and thinking, ‘Oh, that looks like more talent than the other,’ because I would fully, fully expect this is a Sounders team that will rebound this year, if for no other reason than you have a lot of guys with pride. I think they felt stung by how last season ended. Obviously you have high expectations there. You’ve got very competitive people like Sigi Schmid, Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans and others who are not going to let that happen a second time.
“It’s interesting: in doing the notes, it’s not that I didn’t pay attention in the offseason, but I found myself so often going, ‘Oh right, he’s on their team now. Oh right, they made that trade.’ It surprises you how many changes there really have been, certainly as compared to even when I look back on my notes from the playoffs series. I think we’re going to have to see. I think with a lot of these teams, it takes time in MLS. Yeah, you’re in camp for practically two months, you play all these preseason games, but it seems like what happens in preseason has no relation to what happens in the first month of the season. If we’ve learned anything in MLS, what happens in the first month of the season often bears no relation to what happens in the end, to say nothing of that fact … Clint Dempsey (wasn’t there in preseason), so they’re almost kind of starting working him back in.
“If the issue that undid the Seattle Sounders last year was one of chemistry on and off the field, hearing the comments and some of the interviews, it would seem in the locker room and those issues have been addressed and fixed. Now it’s a matter of getting beyond pure chemistry now that Dempsey is back with the team and making all the pieces fit together.”
It seems like a popular narrative coming into the season was that Sigi Schmid has to be on the hot seat already with the way last year ended the public announcement to retain him? Do you view that being the case and that his job is in jeopardy with a slow start or will he be viewed on the season in part due to the offseason changes?
“I think the pressure is on for the season as a whole. I think the Sounders were right not to make a move on Sigi at the end of last year, both because I think teams are too quick to change their coach and also because there were some issues that weren’t his fault — guys were getting hurt, guys were going away, as I said, it was a disjointed end to the season. That wasn’t exclusively his fault, so he didn’t necessarily deserve to be a fall guy for that.
“They showed that patience, but obviously this is a team that did not meet expectations last year. To go out in the playoffs the way they did, particularly because in early September … this team was fine. It just kind of fell apart there. I certainly don’t think Sigi Schmid can afford another season of missing expectations and falling short and having those issues, but Seattle is one of those teams that has a front office that seems very mature, very smart and very forward-thinking — not the type of group that’s going to make a panic change midseason. Unless you have a coach that has completely lost the locker room, and it’s obvious that he’s the only problem, rarely does that spark a renaissance that everyone assumes it will. I don’t see Seattle being that kind of a group.
“I think pressure will be on certainly him and some of the players to make sure that they meet the expectations that they’ve set for themselves, which are high. Again, with Sigi Schmid, and I think the same thing with Bruce Arena in L.A., two of the best coaches in MLS history, they probably would feel a bit disappointed with how their seasons ended based on what they would’ve expected last year, and they are two guys who are going to be very motivated throughout the season and have the resources to make sure that that does not happen again.”
It seems Clint Dempsey was a popular target in recent months when you look at the difficulty he had at the end of last season and during his loan with Fulham, not to mention the Ukraine friendly. How concerned do you think fans should be?
“There’s the old saying — you can never go home again. And it was a much different Fulham than the one that he left last summer. That’s a team with a ton of problems right now, they’re changing coaches and that could not have been a very fun situation to be in. It’s a team that’s sitting in the bottom of the Premier League. Certainly there’s the hope going in that you’re back to a familiar place and you have the opportunity to stay fresh, but then there was the big philosophical question of, is he better off on loan with Fulham or is he better off in Sounders preseason?
“I’m a big advocate and a big believer in the value of preseason. I think of it like with Tim Cahill in New York. Two seasons ago, he joined them August, and when you parachute in midseason, your fitness is off from the group and it just looks a bit disjointed. He gets a full offseason to be with the team and he was marvelous last season. It’s kind of what I was expecting with Clint Dempsey. He parachutes in and it was tough to make the pieces fit, then he had the shoulder injury. You think, ‘Boy is he going to benefit from those two months to work with his team,’ and then he’s not there.
“Obviously the purpose was to have him at a high level, so we’re going to have to see. I’ve seen a volume of stats on Twitter, some of them from you, about how miserable things have been with his teams not winning and him not scoring goals. What little I know of Clint Dempsey, he seems like someone who is less likely to crawl into a hole and sulk. He’s seems more likely to come out with a chip on his shoulder and want to shut everyone up. Perhaps in some way that could be to Seattle’s benefit of a ticked off Clint Dempsey wanting to really roar back, to say nothing of being in form for a World Cup.
“I don’t think it should be overlooked that he missed out on preseason time, he’s missed that practice time and he hasn’t had a chance to build that on-field chemistry with Kenny Cooper, with Marco Pappa and figure out how this new look is going to go. It may take some time early this season, a couple of weeks’ worth of practice to get things where they need to be.”
I’m always so focused on the Sounders that it’s harder for me to really keep up with what’s going on elsewhere in the league, particularly in the East. Do you still see most of the power coming out West?
“Even last year, it seemed as the season went along, some people changed their minds. Early, we were saying, ‘The West is just unbelievably better,’ and by the end, people had changed their tune. What I will say to preface all of this is preseason predictions are way overblown. In MLS, we have no clue. Things look so different at the end of the season from the beginning.
“It’s funny. The ProSoccerTalk guys posted last year’s preseason predictions, when everyone wanted to give the title to L.A., and were not sure if Caleb Porter can make it as a coach, and Salt Lake is in a rebuilding year. We have no idea at this point of this season. We’re just excited to find out.
“What I will say is this: I think, just looking across the West, Seattle and L.A. are big teams who underperformed last year, so they’ll be motivated. Real Salt Lake, I don’t know. How much credit does Jason Kreis deserve? I guess we’ll find out. Portland hasn’t lost anything and they’ve added a couple of pieces. Then you’ve got Colorado, same type of thing. That was a team had Oscar Pareja stayed that I would’ve had said, ‘Boy, Colorado is going to be a very good team.’ I don’t know now. How much of a difference does that make to lose a coach?
“In the East, you have Kansas City coming in and it’s the same exact team minus the goalkeeper. It’s littered with the same guys as last year. It’s really impressive how Peter Vermes has kept them together. New York is still just as good. New England, I think, is going to be on the charge. D.C. is a team that I nominate is kind of the worst-to-first roar-back; every year we have a team in MLS that shoots straight back up the standings.
“At the very least, what I think we have learned after this offseason … there really is maybe one of two teams right now where you’d say, ‘Yeah, they are not going to make the playoffs.’ Every team, almost, has improved. You have a number of groups, Toronto among them, that have thrown the gauntlet down this offseason, saying, ‘We’re going to spend money and we’re going to get better.’
“There seems to be ambition at an all-time high in MLS for going out, making the moves that need to be made, addressing the issues and getting ready to go at things this season. That’s what makes things very exciting for me this season. There is a long list of teams where you say, ‘They’re going to be pretty good. Those are good pieces they brought in.’
“It’s a nine-month boxing match essentially, where everyone beats each other up and then we do it again in the playoffs. A lot of people have made that point that I’ve talked to — it seems hype is at a different level, it seems like this has been a sensationally good offseason and it seems like everyone is coming into this season saying, ‘OK, here we go. It’s time. We’ve got the group we want.’ I don’t know how often you’ve been able to say that quite as universally as you see this season in MLS.”