When Sigi Schmid was an assistant with the US National Team, head coach Bora Milutinović used to tell him, “The World Cup is a year and a half away, but the World Cup is tomorrow.”
That was used to remind Schmid and the rest of the US staff and players to prepare every day as if the World Cup started the following day.
Today, Schmid uses the same tactic to remind the team that the start to Major League Soccer’s 15th season is just around the corner – even though over three weeks from MLS First Kick on March 25 when the Sounders FC face the Philadelphia Union at Qwest Field.
“I know our opening game is three weeks away, but it’s tomorrow,” Schmid said. “Every day we work like it’s tomorrow. We want to make sure we’re ready. We want to push our guys these next games 75 to 90 minutes, make sure they’re ready from a fitness standpoint now. We want to make sure that we start putting together the combinations we think are possibly going to be on the field that opening game and see how they play together and see how the rhythm of our team is.”
That was part of the focus on Wednesday after the Sounders FC returned to Starfire for the first time since February 2. They spent nearly two weeks in Arizona, then two weeks in Spain training.
While players generally agree that the time in Spain was valuable, they were also happy to be back in their own beds and at their own training ground.
“It was good to get over to Spain and kick other teams instead of ourselves all the time. It was good to gauge ourselves against that type of competition,” said defender James Riley, noting the top Norwegian clubs they faced in the La Manga Cup.
Seattle went 2-1 to finish fifth in the Spanish tournament after winning 3-2 against the Vancouver Whitecaps FC in their only match of Arizona. However, nothing can beat the comforts of home.
“It’s nice to be back. Our pitch is better than anything on which we’ve trained away from here. Our locker room is better than anything we’ve been at,” goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. “It’s nice to be back home and back on a great surface at a great facility. We’re just looking forward to getting these last couple games out of the way and hopefully get the season started on time.”
They are now in their final phase of training as they prepare to face the Union three weeks from Thursday. That gives Schmid and the Sounders plenty of time to address any deficiencies they encountered in Spain.
Although the Sounders had the best statistical defense last season, allowing just 29 goals to tie with Houston for the lowest goals allowed total, their 38 goals scored ranked just eighth in the league. That is one area Schmid hopes to see improvement in the Sounders FC’s second season and that starts in the preseason.
“The thing I’ve been talking about all season is us wanting to move the ball quicker, wanting to make sure we get more people in the box when we get our situation in the final third and get into crossing possibilities. That’s what we’re really trying to emphasize right now,” Schmid said. “That’s why we played a lot of one touch today where it forces movement off the ball, forces people to have to think ahead. That’s going to continue to be the emphasis because we want to give up the same amount or less goals than we did last year and we want to score more goals than we did last year.”
While Wednesday’s session did see some finishing work and one-touch drills designed to elevate those offensive numbers, it was also about getting back into a training rhythm after five days off the training field.
“We are just getting back together. Sometimes when you have a few days off, you’re a bit off in that first training session,” midfielder Freddie Ljungberg said. “We worked hard and I think tomorrow we’ll be better.”
One of the other ways Schmid is looking to improve the club in Year Two is by actively pursuing new talent and working players further down the bench into the playing rotation. Especially after seeing marked improvements out of several of his players.
“It’s tough to make this roster because we do have a good core that we developed last year and we want to hold onto that core of players, but you’re always looking to expand upon it and make it better,” Schmid said. “You also have a lot of players like Roger Levesque. Roger, last year at the beginning of the year, was struggling. It was going to be touch-and-go whether he was going to make the team. This year he’s one of the guys who came back in and said ‘I’m going to be better than I was last year.’”
The current training roster is 32 players deep, with three of those players being draftees and another seven listed as non-roster invitees. The Sounders will widdle that roster down to 24 players before the season opener and have three more preseason games to that end, beginning opposite the Whitecaps this Saturday.
Preseason will conclude with two Community Shield matches – the first at Qwest Field against the USL Portland Timbers, March 11 and the second on March 19 in Colorado against the Rapids.