BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 02/29/2012

Thiel: First look at Sounders’ plan for new final act

A free-to-the-public friendly at the Clink Wednesday against Mexican club Jaguares de Chiapas wraps up the exhibition season, and provides a first local look at the many newbies.

Defender Marc Burch is among the newcomers getting in their first match at the Clink as a Sounder Wednesday night. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

New stud goalie. New stud forward. New stud turf.

No more old dud outcomes.

At least, that is SoundersFC’s 2012 plan.

First peek at the changes is 7 p.m. Wednesday, when anyone with a passion for soccer and windchill will be allowed free into the Clink for an exhibition friendly against Jaguares de Chiapas, a Mexican team who will perhaps will be fresh to the blending of frostbite and futbol.

The Sounders have spent the last month in Arizona, Florida and Mexico making introductions in a friendlier climate among newbies and holdovers.

Among the fresh faces, goalie Michael Gspurning has the biggest shoes to fill, those of retired team captain Kasey Keller, and Eddie Johnson has the trickiest gig: Playing productively with fellow striker Fredy Montero in order to advance the Sounder for the first time beyond the first round of the MLS playoffs — an increasingly embarrassing shortcoming that mars an otherwise stellar four-year start for the franchise on the field and at the gate.

A minor hamstring injury is supposed to keep Johnson out of the exhibition match. But no witnesses to training Tuesday believed that, because Johnson ran with much abandon on the cushier new FieldTurf installed at the Clink last week.

“Yeah, he was almost too active for me,” said coach Sigi Schmid, who dreads having a key injury spoiling an attempt at a fast seasonal start. “He was running around a lot more than I expected. He says it feels all right.

“He goes, ‘It’s a little sore, but it felt more sore from a work-out type of sore, rather than an injury type of sore.’ He felt pretty good and I think you (reporters)  could see a little bit.  He’s got a good touch, he’s pretty composed.”

Johnson, 27, was acquired Feb. 17 in a dramatic trade with the Montreal Impact that cost the Sounders two promising players, midfielder Lamar Neagle and defender Mike Fucito.  A Florida native,  Johnson has been a member of the U.S. National Team since scoring in his debut in October 2004. He has 41 appearances with 12 goals for the senior team as well as eight goals in nine FIFA World Cup qualifying appearances, and is the only U.S. player to score a hat trick coming off the bench.

A big start in his MLS career in Dallas launched him to Europe in a contract with Fulham of the EPL. But he never quite cut it in the Premiership, bouncing around with several clubs before returning to the MLS, where the Sounders didn’t much care what happened in England.

GM Adrian Hanauer said the game at the top is ruthless.

“There’s lots of stories about his reported struggles and moves among a few teams, but it’s a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog world when you go to those teams,” he said after training Tuesday.  “You have one bad training session and you may be out the door. Just because a guy doesn’t bang away 15 goals the first time he goes to the Premiership doesn’t mean he isn’t a darn good player.  We knew him well through (technical director)  Chris Henderson, and we love him as a player.

“He has so many qualities — speed, power, touch, finishing and World Cup experience. There were reason he was in the Premiership five years ago.”

The Sounders have had mixed results trying to get the right complement to Montero. International acquisitions on the back end of their careers such as Freddie Ljungberg and Blaise Nkufo haven’t worked well, but going back to a younger American isn’t necessarily the end or the beginning of a trend, he said.

It’s a player-by-player thing,” he said. “David Beckham is the most famous athlete on the planet, and you would imagine him not working so hard to fit in (to the LA Galaxy), and not working his butt off like he does. But he’s the consummate team guy who works as hard as anyone on that team. He looks like he’s trying to prove himself every day.

“You can have another high-quality player from Europe who has no profile, yet he decides to be a primadonna or lazy. So there’s no pattern. It’s just about making sure you get the right guy. We’ve had good success with our foreign signings, whether designated players  or not.

“Certainly everyone can be better. If players had no flaws, they’d be playing for Barcelona or Manchester United.”

With the quest for perfection out of the way early, then, the Sounders embark Wednesday with a revamped roster that has mere championship ambition.

NOTES — Schmid said although the Wednesday game is a friendly, he doesn’t intend to use it as the final trial for roster spots. “The most important thing is preparation for Santos. This won’t be a situation where we’re going to get guys minutes to determine whether they’ll make the roster. Our preparation is to get cohesion among our first group. We’ll put on the field the guys who are likely to be on the 18-man squad.” . . . The Jaguares will be the second of three Mexican Primera Division clubs Seattle will face in a three-week span. Sounders FC will kick off the competitive season March 7 with a match against Mexico’s Santos Laguna in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The second leg is in Torreon, Mexico, March 14. The winner of the aggregate-goal series advances to the semifinals to face LA Galaxy or Toronto FC  . . . Potentially six games separate Sounders FC from being named the top club in North America, Central America and the Caribbean, and advancing to the FIFA Club World Cup . . . The Sounders finished a 13-day road trip a week ago with a 5-2 win over Atlante FC in Cancun, Mexico. In six preseason games, Sounders  won four and tied twice, scoring at least one goal in every game and multiple in the past four . . . The Sounders open the MLS season March 17 at home against Toronto, the first of three consecutive home matches.