BY Art Thiel 11:20PM 03/15/2011

Sounders opener: No win, no Nkufo

Another loss to LA Galaxy preceded by puzzling departure of star DP

Sounders defender Jeff Parke goes airborne against the Los Angeles Galaxy Thursday night at Qwest Field / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Fresh season, fresh controversy, same old outcome against the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Besides another loss, this one 1-0, to Major League Soccer’s most celebrated outfit – “our boogie team,” in the words of Seattle coach Sigi Schmid – the Sounders further spit up on their nationally televised season opener Tuesday night by announcing just before the match that Blaise Nkufo “cut ties” with the team by mutual agreement.

The 35-year-old designated player and Swiss national team member, a big part of the Sounders’ 13-2-3 finish that led to the playoffs last season, scoring five goals in 11 starts, was nowhere to be seen by another soccer-sellout crowd (a regular-season record 36,433) at Qwest Field.

“He didn’t want to be in our plans, and we didn’t want him in our plans,” general manager Adrian Hanauer said finally after several minutes of post-match questions from reporters. Hanauer was clearly uncomfortable talking about the abrupt departure of a relatively high-paid ($335,000) player that the Sounders touted heavily last season.

Absent any words from Nkufo to fill in the blanks, one thing that’s clear is the normally PR-savvy Sounders are taking a hit.

“The timing was disappointing, because this story will get more play than the opener,” Hanauer said. Although he made a point to say there was “no huge drama,” he was well aware that Nkufo was the DP replacement for another international star, Freddie Ljungberg, whose primadonna petulance last season helped lead to his trade.

“The irony,” he said, “is not lost on me.”

The move is partly explained by the desire to unload Nkufo’s salary before the season if his play were in decline. MLS salary-cap rules preclude a move after the season without eating salary. Unloading him now gives the Sounders room to add another DP.

Hanauer wouldn’t directly answer whether a trade was in the works, or even whether Nkufo had a desire to continue to play.

“We need to put that off to the side,” he said. “Arrangements are being finalized.”

The mystery of the abrupt departure was almost Griffey-like, although there was no report of Nkufo driving his car to Florida.

In plain sight, however, was another loss to the Galaxy. Newcomer O’Brian White, a 25-year-old Jamaican, replaced Nkufo as a starting forward and was in the middle of the offensive action most of the night but missed on four shots, a couple of which were must-haves if the Sounders were to have any shot against their nemeses.

Nkufo was specifically hired last year to help the Sounders’ anemic attack. There’s no way to know whether he would have converted the chances White had, but a shutout certainly invites the question.

Schmid naturally preferred to talk around the point by saying this time, the Sounders played closer to the Galaxy’s level.

“A tie would have been a fair result, but it is what it is,” he said. “Our guys are pissed and disappointed. We haven’t lost an opener before. “Our effort was good. If we played horrible, you’d see me beating my head against the wall.”

A long strike in the 58th minute by LA midfielder Juninho, allowed to roam free for a clean shot, glanced off the hands Seattle keeper Kasey Keller for the difference-maker.

The Galaxy was missing two key players, keeper Donovan Ricketts (injured) and striker Juan Pablo Angel (sickness), but the Sounders failed to take advantage. It was the fifth consecutive loss to the Galaxy – 4-0 and 3-1 in the regular season, 1-0 and 2-1 in the playoffs – although Schmid reminded that the Sounders beat LA in U.S. Open Cup play.

But not many were watching that one, and fewer care about the Cup results, including the players.

Tuesday, ESPN was in the house, as was a 34th consecutive sellout crowd. What they experienced was defeat and mystery.  Add in 44 degrees and drenching showers, and the party was a little subdued.


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