BY Stanley Holmes 03:28PM 12/17/2010

Pressure is on as Keller agrees to a final year

Keller wants to bring home the MLS Cup but it won’t be easy.

Kasey Keller Sounders 2009

Kasey Keller Sounders 2009

The Seattle Sounders inked a new contract extension Friday with veteran keeper and local-boy Kasey Keller — who says he’s returning for one more year to play against newbies Vancouver and Portland — but ultimately he wants to win the MLS Cup before hanging up his gloves.

“I would love to finish my career with an MLS championship,” Keller said, at a press conference Friday. “I’m looking forward to this season and hopefully bringing that championship home to Seattle.”

That may be easier said than done. The Sounders have been quiet through the offseason transfer and trade happenings compared to its rivals. That’s partly because the coaches believe the returning player group is strong and it’s partly the result of salary cap constraints.

But this is going to be a decisive year for the team. With Keller and ownership publicly stating they want to win the MLS Cup this season, the pressure is on the coaches and the players to make it happen.

So far, it’s hard to see if the new players have the quality to add to a team that finished fourth in the Western Conference, made the playoffs for the second consecutive year and captured its second U.S. Open Cup title.

Of the fresh crop, Swedish midfielder Erik Friberg is the best pick of the bunch. A starter for BK Hacken of the Swedish first division, Friberg could have the skills to run the center of the midfield. Forward O’Brian White, a former first-round draft pick from Toronto FC, is fast and big and bristling with unfulfilled potential. But he is still returning from a serious knee injury.

Both of these players are expected to compete for starting positions, says Adrian Hanauer, owner and general manager for the Sounders. But both players bring more questions than answers.

The same can be said for defenders Julien Baudet and Danny Earls. The Sounders acquired both Colorado Rapids players in trades resulting from the 2010 MLS Expansion Draft that saw Seattle lose Sanna Nyassi and Nathan Sturgis. Defender Tyrone Marshall went to Colorado in the first MLS Re-Entry Draft for veteran players.

Baudet, 31, brings immense experience and an impressive soccer resume. The Frenchman has played 10 seasons in Europe, including second and third division teams Crewe Alexandria and Notts County in England as well as for Toulouse, France, before landing in Colorado. He started 14 games last year, but Colorado deemed him expendable partly for his age and high salary.

Earls, a 21 year-old Irishman, started his career in the Aston Villa Academy in England and played for its reserve team before crossing the Atlantic for the Rochester Rhinos of the USL-1 two years ago. The Rhinos named him Rookie of the Year. He joined the Rapids last year, where he played in 15 matches.

Yet, Seattle is already deep with capable defenders. All-Star centerback Jhon Hurtado Kennedy will be returning from a knee injury. Jeff Parke, Patrick Ianni, Leonardo Gonzalez and James Riley seem to all have secured roster spots and would be the projected starters. Boudet and Earls will have to compete for reserve spots against known quantities Taylor Graham, Tyson Wahl and Zack Scott.

Contrast that to the Los Angeles Galaxy that made headline-grabbing moves for Juan Pablo Angel, a Colombian designated player for the New York Red Bulls. And the Galaxy also added U.S. National Team veteran Frankie Hejduk to a squad already bursting with top talent in the likes of Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Edson Buddle and Juninho.

True, Coach Bruce Arena has to sign Angel and Hejduk, but his moves signal a strong desire to win the MLS Cup this season.

Coach Sigi Schmid is taking a different approach. He is looking for players that will fit into his system — a system that depends on speedy wing play and on the scoring creativity of  Fredy Montero tucked somewhere in the middle.

White, the young Jamaican International, is a case in point. He has been toiling under the radar, striving to return to his pre-injury promise. The 24-year-old forward is a young man’s version of Nkufo. He stands 6-1 and comes with pace and strong finishing skills and can play with his back to the defenders. Toronto FC picked him fourth overall in the 2009 MSL SuperDraft following an outstanding college career at the University of Connecticut.

He was named MAC Hermann Trophy Winner and Soccer America Player of the Year as a junior after scoring 23 goals in 24 games.  He made 33 appearances in his first two seasons with Toronto FC, scoring four goals, as he worked to overcome serious knee injury.

“O’Brian is a forward with good pace and size, and adds another option for us in our desire to be a club that scores goals,” Schmid said.

Schmid also is banking that a rested Blaise Nkufo and Alvaro Fernandez, two of the club’s designated players, will pay big dividends this season. And it is hoped that newly minted DP Montero will put together a season to remember — from March to October.

But the key question mark remains in the center of the midfield. Seattle’s biggest offseason move was for Swedish newbie Friberg. Playing in the middle and sometimes the left side, Friberg was instrumental in winning the ball and setting-up attacks for Häcken. He also scored five times in 94 appearances for the Göteborg club. Friberg (pronounced FREE-burg) first signed as a professional at age 16 with Västra Frölunda IF.

In 2010, Friberg’s club Häcken finished eighth in the Allsvenskan, the Swedish first division, after taking fifth the previous season. In 2008, Friberg’s first season as a starter, Häcken earned promotion after finishing second in Sweden’s second tier, the Superettan.

“Erik is a player who who brings an honest work rate and flair to our midfield,” said Schmid. “He has a nonstop engine and is versatile with the ability to play in the middle of the park or wide on occasion. His passing will help diversify our attack in 2011.”

Schmid  also will depend on a  healthy Brad Evans to lead the center of the midfield. Evans has been a starter when he has been healthy and is capable of scoring goals. His soccer IQ is high and he has good passing vision. He’s not known to be the fastest player on the team, and it’s unclear if he can step up and be the kind of playmaker Schmid needs to diversify the attack and take the pressure off the wings and Montero.

For Keller, 41, this will be his final year. There is no turning back at the end of his 20th professional season and third for Seattle, he said. His primary goal is to win the MLS Cup, and he indicated he agreed to a salary cut to help a “very cap-constrained”  Sounders field a competitive team.

“The way I feel physically, the way I feel mentally, I see no reason why I can’t continue on for one more season and then be able to go out on my own terms,” Keller said. “I wanted to be able to say that this is my final year and that we are going to try to bring home the MLS championship in my last year as a pro.”

With most of the player pieces in place, Sounders FC supporters can only hope the coaches and players can turn the club’s third year into a season to remember.