BY Stanley Holmes 03:10PM 02/25/2011

The defense needs to step up

Sounders must improve as they continue to tune up for March 15 kick off.

Mike Fucito fights for a ball during a training game against UCF at IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla. / Sounders FC

The defense can be forgiven for leaking more than one goal per game against quality teams in preseason matches.

After all, this is preseason, and the Sounders FC are little bit bruised and battered in the center of the defense. The players are still finding their footing, still welcoming back Jhon  Kennedy Hurtado from a serious knee injury that ended his season early last year. Patrick Ianni has suffered niggling injuries and Jeff Parke is still recovering from big-toe surgery in the offseason.

“I think defensively, obviously,we still have some things that we have to work through,” coach Sigi Schmid said, from Sounders preseason camp in Brandenton, FA. “Overall, I think it has been OK. But we still have work to do.”

The early results have not flattered the defense. The team gave up three goals against Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew, and conceded two goals each against Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas. The three shutouts came against a weak Chivas USA team, the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps and a college team.

For the Sounders to have any hope of reaching the MLS Cup finals, its defense must improve over last season’s erratic performance. And it needs to start demonstrating some cohesion, some steel, some bite now to inspire confidence and solidarity, as the Sounders head into the final preseason matches and meet LA Galaxy March 15 for the opening game of the regular season.

Parke, who figures to be a central character in this defensive narrative, says there’s still plenty of time to shore up the deficiencies before the first kick. “We’re a little banged up right now,” Parke told Sportspress Northwest. “We still have a little bit of time to put it together. That’s why it’s good to have preseason — to get the rust and kinks out. ”

While preseason cannot be taken too seriously at this juncture, last season offers some telling insights into the defense’s overall performance. At times, the defensive back four looked solid, contributing to 11 shutouts in MLS play–which put them in the top third overall.

But they were one of the leakiest defenses when conceding goals in the final 15 minutes of the game — giving up 12 goals. Only Chivas USA, which allowed 17 goals, was worse. New England Revolution also allowed 12 during the crucial final minutes of the match.

Last season, the Sounders conceded 1.17 goals per game. That’s a respectable number but it falls short of the elite playoff-bound teams. The Galaxy conceded less than one goal a game (.87), as did FC Dallas (.93), the New York Red Bulls (.97) and Real Salt Lake had the stingiest defense — a goals against average of just .67. Even the Colorado Rapids, a surprise MLS Cup winner, conceded fewer goals than Seattle, allowing 1.07 per game.

Schmid acknowledged one of the defensive lapses last year was defending against set plays — such as corner kicks and free kicks. Schmid said the group has to do better this year, and it will be part of the next phase of training.

“We still need to work on our defending on set pieces,” Schmid said. “That’s something we haven’t focused or concentrated on but they’re going to get a steady diet of that as we move forward here… One of the things that we were not good at last year was defending those sort of set pieces and just our cohesion.”

It’s fair to say that the Sounders missed Hurtado’s commanding presence in the center of the defense last year. Finalist for 2009 Defender of the Year and selected to the All-Star team that year, Hurtado is the team’s finest one-on-one defender.

He started the first nine games then tore his ACL and was finished for the season. Getting Hurtado back to his 2009 level is critical to elevating the team’s defensive play to the same level of the MSL teams favored to win the cup or go deep into the playoffs.

Schmid says the Colombian’s progress has been good and he’s playing at about 80 percent of where he needs to be. Battling against Houston’s two physical strikers in Brian Ching and Cam Weaver recently tested Hurtado, and he passed, Schmid said.

“He’s at a good point,” Schmid said. “We have been trying to get him minutes with that first group and also some minutes with the other group. But the main thing is just to get more and more game time for him. He’s got no issues coming back from his injuries.”

Parke, who stepped into Hurtado’s vacancy last season, also has been trying to overcome big-toe surgery. The surgeon removed bone spurs that had developed where the toe meets the joint. Every time Parke walked or ran he felt a sharp pain. He couldn’t push off, it inhibited his movement. The surgeon also removed some torn ligaments floating around in there and declared the surgery a success. But rehabilitation has been slower than expected, Parke said.

“It’s coming around,” he said. “I’m pushing through it and hoping to get a little bit healthier.”

Jeff Parke / Sounders FC

Parke welcomes the return of Hurtado, but he noted it will take more than one player to sharpen the overall defensive play. “He pushes and makes the guys better,” Parke said.  “He’s a strong, solid defender and a good player. You need solid players and great players to win a cup and I think we have it to win the MLS Cup.”

Equally important for the defense will be improving communication, being consistent and being a well-organized line. “The communication is huge,” Parke said. “Knowing that if you get beat you have the confidence that your partner will step in and make it hard for the opponent to get the shot off. It’s also about swarming and working as a collective unit.”

Parke, 28, filled the hole left by Hurtado’s injury. The former New York Red Bulls player, named Red Bulls defender of the year in 2007, stepped in and started the next 20 matches for Seattle. He offered some stability during some early-season turmoil and line-up shuffles–something he demonstrated with the Red Bulls — either leading the team in total minutes or hovering near the top between 2005-2008.

Parke has big ambitions for his performances and for the team heading into the 2011 season.

“Being consistent, winning my duals with any forward, organizing more and being a leader in the back are my top goals,” Parke said.  “The consistency, winning the duals and the leadership are probably what I need to work on the most.”

As a team, Parke said strong defensive play comes from all over the field. Everyone from the forwards to the defenders need to put in a a defensive shift.

“Working hard from the top to all the way back is key,” he said. “It takes a lot of effort to be a defensive-minded team. If we can pressure the ball and get at the team, we should be that way and make it very difficult. it’s a pain in the neck when teams are swarming and pressuring you. That’s what we need to do all the time.”

And yes, the team defensively still needs to polish, sharpen, strengthen and build cohesion during the rest of the preseason. But the veteran Parke says he is not worried and knows the group will be ready once the regular season kicks off.

“We’re on pace,” he said. “I still think we have areas to improve and work on. We’re not quite ready.  We’re still figuring out different lines, groups, getting the best players on the field. I wouldn’t say I’m worrying.”

To the contrary. For him, this team heading into this season is “the best team I’ve ever been on. We have more leadership and more years of experience. It will be an exciting year.”