Sounders start third year of MLS with major expectations

TUKWILA, Wash. — When Sigi Schmid went around the room and asked just how many of his Seattle Sounders were still around from the first practice nearly two years ago, an impressive number of hands went into the air.

Might not be the same next year, unless Seattle can finally match its goal of being the best in Major League Soccer.

Pretty heady stuff for the first day of preseason camp.

"This is the year that if we don't accomplish some of the things that we feel we can accomplish, then you have to start looking at breaking up that core," Schmid said on Tuesday. "So this is an important year."

The Sounders began Year 3 on an overcast, drizzly morning on Tuesday, without any of the uncertainty from a year ago when the team wondered how a new collective-bargaining agreement would affect the franchise and if designated player Freddie Ljungberg truly wanted to be in Seattle.

Ljungberg is gone, the Sounders have three designated players now — Blaise Nkufo, Fredy Montero and Alvaro Fernandez — and one of the deepest rosters in the MLS. Seattle returns 10 players who started most of last season, and that doesn't include past starters Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Brad Evans, both coming back from injuries that cost them most of the 2010 season.

Seattle closed last season as the hottest team in the league, finishing the final 15 matches with a 10-2-3 record. But the Sounders' inability to score in the playoffs was exposed again in a first-round loss to Los Angeles. Despite winning a second straight U.S. Open Cup title, the first-round exit was a sudden thud to a successful second season.

Forward Steve Zakuani, who had the chance to train with Everton in the offseason, is one of Seattle's key returners. The Sounders lost Sanna Nyassi and Nathan Sturgis in the expansion draft, but have added Jamaican forward O'Brian White and Swedish midfielder Erik Friberg.

Also back is goalkeeper Kasey Keller, 41, for what is likely to be his final season playing professionally.

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