2016 MLS season preview: Seattle Sounders

Despite the departure of Obafemi Martins, the Sounders look well equipped to make a run at their first MLS Cup title in 2016.

2015 regular season: 4th Western Conference (6th overall)

2015 playoffs: Conference semi-finals; 4-2 loss to FC Dallas on penalties after 3-3 aggregate draw

MLS Cup odds: 15/1

Players in: Tyler Miller (Seattle Sounders 2), Joevin Jones (Chicago Fire, trade), Michael Farfan (free), Jordan Morris (Homegrown), Nathan Sturgis (free agent), Oalex Anderson (Seattle Sounders 2)

Players out: Micheal Azira (option declined), Chad Barrett (option declined), Andres Correa (option declined), Leonardo Gonzalez (option declined), Troy Perkins (option declined), Gonzalo Pineda (option declined), Thomas (option declined), Andy Rose (out of contract), Lamar Neagle (D.C. United, trade), Marco Pappa (Colorado Rapids, trade), Obafemi Martins (Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, undisclosed)

After winning the US Open Cup and their first-ever Supporters’ Shield title in 2014, the Seattle Sounders went into last season as one of the leading MLS Cup contenders. They got off to a hot start, winning nine of their opening 15 games, but the loss of star men Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins to a combination of injures and international call-ups over the summer prompted a horrendous run of nine defeats in 11 matches. Things got back on track over the second half of the year with the two forwards returning and mid-season signings Erik Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, Nelson Valdez and Roman Torres coming on board, but that wasn’t enough to get them past FC Dallas in the Western Conference semi-finals.

Martins has since headed for China, but with a full season of Valdez and boy wonder Jordan Morris finally opting to start his professional career, confidence remains high heading into the new campaign.

Reasons to be positive

As much as it hurts to break up the partnership between Dempsey and Martins, the Sounders have the attacking pieces to overcome the Nigerian’s departure. In a 4-3-3 formation, Designated Player Valdez and Homegrown signing Morris will slot alongside Dempsey to ensure the forward line is still fairly formidable, while the money freed up can be used to strengthen other more needy areas of the squad in the near future. Add in attacking midfielder Ivanschitz and 2014 first-round SuperDraft pick Cristian Roldan – who is a prime breakout candidate – and most would agree that things are looking good in the final third.

Even with centre-back Torres still recovering from a knee ligament injury, there shouldn’t be too many problems with the defence either. The ultra-versatile Brad Evans will be a solid partner for Chad Marshall in the middle for the time being, Tyrone Mears was arguably the best right-back in MLS last season and new left-back Joevin Jones should prove a big upgrade over Dylan Remick and the departed Leonardo Gonzalez. Backup Oniel Fisher also looked like a starting full-back during the 2015 run-in, while goalkeeper Stefani Frei is a reliable presence between the posts.

Trouble on the horizon?

Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso simply didn’t look himself during his second straight injury-hit season in 2015, and the obvious concern now is that the 30-year-old Cuban won’t ever be the same two-way player who was previously integral to Seattle's success. A rumoured move away from CenturyLink Field this winter failed to materialise in the end, but Sigi Schmid’s side will really struggle in the centre of the park if he can’t get back to his past best. There’s currently no obvious replacements for the long-time fan favourite on the squad – or even any true defensively-minded midfield options for that matter – so one would hope that the funds from Martins’ sale will ultimately be used to bring in some much needed cover.

With Martins gone, the other main concern is what happens if Valdez and Morris fail to live up to their billing. Dempsey is certainly more than capable of carrying the attack, but if he’s struck down by injury, there’ll be a huge amount of pressure on his fellow starters given the lack of options beyond them and the absence of a genuine goalscoring midfielder.

Key man: Clint Dempsey

While Dempsey’s 2015 was constantly disrupted by injures and international call-ups, he still produced whenever he was on the pitch for the Sounders. The 32-year-old Texan recorded 10 goals and 10 assists in 20 regular season appearances, as the club lost just three of those games, and his brace in Tuesday night’s 2-2 CONCACAF Champions League draw with Mexican giants Club America showed that he's ready to hit the ground running this term.

One to watch: Jordan Morris

Apart from Freddy Adu, no rookie has entered MLS with more expectations than Morris. Already a fully fledged US international, the 21-year-old forward signed the most lucrative Homegrown contract in league history last month after spurning Werder Bremen’s advances and now faces the tough task of trying to replicate Martins’ impact. Nevertheless, after seeing how he took to international football while still enrolled at Stanford University, plenty are confident that the nine-time capped speedster won't disappoint.

Predicted regular season finish: 4th Western Conference

The Sounders have made the playoffs every year since entering MLS in 2009 and they should feel extremely confident about extending that run this season. The loss of Martins and issues in central midfield may well prevent them from topping such a highly competitive conference, but those concerns likely won’t be grave enough to knock them out of postseason contention. However, whether they will get any closer to that elusive first MLS Cup title is another matter.

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