BY Stanley Holmes 12:20PM 11/23/2010

Sounders gamble on protected player list

Seattle leaves DP Blaise Nkufo, Sanna Nyassi, Patrick Ianni and Leo Gonzalez unprotected as Vancouver and Portland prepare for the 2010 MLS Expansion Draft.

Sounders striker Blaise Nkufo against the Los Angeles Galaxy during the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals on Halloween night. (Drew Sellers/Sports Press Northwest)

The Sounders coaching staff made a bold and controversial statement Monday when they released their list of protected players for the upcoming MLS Expansion Draft.

For the most part, they made the right decisions but only if they can create enough cap space to shell out some real money for an emerging world-class center midfielder, or a quality attacking outside back, or centerback.

What’s more, the forwards they protected have to step up and produce next season, or the coaches will look foolish losing Nkufo after raising such a fuss about his arrival and his abilities. Coach Sigi Schmid said often that the Sounders were a better team with Nkufo in the starting eleven.

Left unprotected were some surprising names: designated player Nkufo, winger Sanna Nyassi, midfielder Nathan Sturgis, defender Patrick Ianni and leftback Leo Gonzalez. All of these players were starters that helped take the Sounders to the first round of the playoffs in its second season in Major League Soccer.

The protected list: Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Alvaro Fernandez, Mike Fucito, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Nate Jaqua, Kasey Keller, Fredy Montero, Jeff Parke, James Riley and Steve Zakuani.

“It was an excruciatingly difficult to make our final decisions,” said Adrian Hanauer, owner and general manager.

Three issues determined their fates: first, there is some political calculation that some of these players won’t be picked up by Vancouver or Portland due to their high price contracts or option clauses, or the other scenario is they do want to be selected (Nkufo to Vancouver and Ianni to Portland is a plausible scenario). Second, the Sounders can only protect 11 players. And finally, the management and coaching staff, though reports suggest they didn’t all agree, have settled on their core nucleus of talent they believe can take them to the next level.

“They scrutinized everything,” said Peter Fewing, former head coach of the men’s Seattle University soccer team and color commentator for the Sounders. “I think they are being aggressive and their aim is to improve. It sends a big message about their ambitions.”

Indeed. The LA Galaxy playoff series exposed a big weakness in the middle of the pitch. When Galaxy choked Seattle’s wing play and stymied Montero’s creativity, Seattle had no offensive spark to switch the attack. Sturgis is a hard working and technically proficient player but he lacks the attacking vision to give Seattle more offensive options. It became evident in the Los Angeles series.

Let’s hope the Sounders can open cap space or use a DP slot to find a high-quality center midfielder in the mold of a young, emerging Cesc Fabergas of Arsenal,  Rafael Van Der Vaart of Tottenham or Bastian Schweinsteiger of Bayern Munich.

Of course, signing one of those players is unrealistic but they are the type of creative center midfielders that would elevate Seattle’s attacking options. But heck, FC Dallas creative force David Ferreira would certainly fit as would Javier Morales of Real Salt Lake or Juninho of the Galaxy.

Seattle needs such a force to partner with defensive midfielder Alonso, who is transforming into one of the league’s best ball-winners. “You need to find a real playmaker to partner with Alonso,” Fewing said. “You really need someone crafty on the ball.”

For now, it appears the coaches have settled on a healthy Evans to run the midfield, supported by Alonso and flanked by Zakuani and designated player Fernandez, who has said he prefers to play in a wide midfield role.

The other gamble the coaches took was protecting Jaqua. The big forward, who missed half the season due to injury, has had his critics even when healthy. And it seemed his fate was sealed with the arrival of Nkufo, the tall, 35-year-old Swiss marksman. But management sees it differently.

Despite criticism of Jaqua’s finishing abilities, Hanauer said a healthy Jaqua in 2009 produced nine goals and seven assists. Though injured this past season and playing only about 950 minutes, Hanauer pointed out Jaqua still scored six goals and contributed six assists in all competitions.  Being willing to renegotiate his contract also helped, Hanauer said.

“We redid Nate’s contract in June/July and he was a total team guy and took a reduction at a time where we needed some cap space to bring some players in,” Hanauer said. “We feel like a healthy Nate is a very productive player for us.”

So Seattle has exposed its cards and the drama thickens as coaches, players and supporters await to see who Vancouver and Portland actually select. Seattle can lose up to two players. The 2010 MLS Expansion Draft begins Wednesday morning, eastern time.

Unprotected Players:

  • Julien Baudet
  • Terry Boss
  • Danny Earls
  • David Estrada
  • Leo Gonzalez
  • Taylor Graham
  • Patrick Ianni
  • Roger Levesque
  • Tyrone Marshall
  • Miguel Montaño
  • Blaise Nkufo
  • Pat Noonan
  • Sanna Nyassi
  • Zach Scott
  • Michael Seamon
  • Nathan Sturgis
  • Tyson Wahl


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