BY Stanley Holmes 02:58PM 02/04/2011

The new reserves are strengthening the Sounders

Sounders rookies and newbies are putting the pressure on for final roster spots

Sounders Mike Fucito tries to dribble past Danny Earls at at Casa Grande / Sounders FC

Suddenly, things are getting interesting.

Rookies and trialists are making a deep impression with Sounders coach Sigi Schmid and his coaching staff. Adding to the complexity for the veteran reserve players is the re-emergence of a reserve league and the new requirement that Major League Soccer teams must carry three goalies.

So, do the math. The first and second teams equal 22 players. Add an additional goalie and that leaves five open spots to equal the magic roster number of 28. True, the Sounders can push the roster to 30, but those players have to be from its academy — the definition of homegrown talent. It appears the Sounders won’t exercise that option this season.

So, who will be the lucky, or deserving five?

To answer that, we need to redetermine the top 22 and acknowledge several realities as the squad completes nine days of preseason training — the last five at Casa Grande in Arizona. On Friday, the Sounders scrimmage Vancouver.

First, it is clear the starting eleven and most of the second team are stronger, fitter and hungrier than last year. It is also clear the core group of veterans has established a tight bond, trust each other and are pushing the entire squad.

You cannot underestimate the power of positive group think — as long as it is driven by talented and motivated players willing to sacrifice for the team game. There is literally no other sport that relies so heavily on the individual interactions of 11 players all performing as one connective group.

Barcelona wins because the squad of super-talented individuals seems to intimately know each others’ strengths, weaknesses, preferences and desires. The players have bought into the system and are willing to work for it. The same appears to be happening with Seattle, although at a less-exalted level.

This motivation to win the MLS Cup, to continue this club’s culture of excellence (that might be an oxymoron in the MLS, but Sounders have to work within the league rules) could offset the lack of a real creative playmaker/superstar. The Sounders have no Thierry Henry, no David Beckham, no Juan Pablo Angel. But they do have Steve Zakuani, Fredy Montero, Alvaro Fernandez, Blaise Nkufo and Erik Friberg/Brad Evans.

The tight togetherness of this talented core group led by the explosiveness of Zakuani and the creativity and trickery of Montero could be enough to challenge for the MLS Cup. The Sounders will need massive contributions from those two as well as from Fernandez, Nkufo and Fribeg/Evans.

But now the attention turns to the reserves. Has Seattle boosted the talent pool among the second team and among the new rookies and trialists to really push the first team as well as cover for injury? The answer appears yes, if we are to believe the coaching staff.

This is where it gets really interesting. Who will be those players?

And the drum roll, please…….

First team

  • Keller, Gonzalez, Parke, Hurtado, Riley, Alonso, Zakuani, Fernandez, Friberg/Evans, Montero, Nkufo.
  • No surprises here. The only question is whether it will be Friberg or Evans starting in center midfield position. Evans is still regaining his strength and touch from a knee injury that kept him out most of last season. Friberg still needs time to become familiar with the players and the system.

Second Team

  • Boss, Earls, Ianni, Wahl, Levesque, Seamon/Carrasco, Evans, Fucito, Tetteh, White, Jaqua.
  • This is where Schmid makes the big money. It’s easy to pick a Montero or a Zakuani. Their abundant talent is, well, abundant. Picking the bubble players is the most challenging.
  • Defenders: Wahl, Taylor Graham and Zach Scott are all battling for spots. Turning Levesque into a right back also creates more competition. Rookies Leone Cruz and Corey Attaway are making a case for themselves.
  • Midfielders: I put Tetteh as a left midfielder as well as left back. If Sounders take Earls, who is a very steady, experienced player, he becomes the automatic No. 2 in that position. Tetteh is then deployed as a late-game attacking midfielder. That leaves Lamar Neagle, David Estrada, Jonathan Prieto and Levesque, if he is classified as a midfielder, all dangling.
  • Forwards: Montano, Noonan, Kerry Baptiste and Seedy Bah are contesting for the final spots up top.

Who will be the third goal keeper and who will get the final five roster spots? Remember, think reserve league and how that now allows the Sounders to develop some younger talent. This is going to be the hardest decision for Schmid, because he’s going to have to say goodbye to some popular and dedicated players.

Here are the five (one spot to keeper) who have the best chance of making the final roster spots. I believe Carrasco is going to make the team. And so with Evans/Friberg fighting for starting spot, that makes for three second-team center midfielders: Evans or Friberg, Seamon and Carrasco. That leaves only four field spots at the bottom of the roster. And those players are:

  • Merideth (goalie), Cruz, Estrada, Montano and the final spot is a toss up among Bah, Prieto, Neagle, Attaway.
  • Or perhaps Schmid lets go Levesque and Attaway makes an argument for outside back as a long-term project. Or Prieto, as he did Thursday, plays his way on as a development player. Same for Neagle, but is he a development player?
  • Baptiste has been impressing with his goal scoring and his speed. But where does he fit in? Is he better than the top four forwards? And is he a development player?

These are the tough decisions Schmid has to make as he weighs the pros and cons of experienced reserves over a talented rookie class. The good news for the squad: these various newbies have strengthened the talent pool, and the starting eleven will be better for it.