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Sounders focus almost entirely on MLS Cup title

The Sounders have an uncertain roster heading into the season, but have still set a goal to reach the MLS Cup final for the first time in franchise history. (AP)

By TIM BOOTH
Associated Press

TUKWILA, Wash. (AP) - The Seattle Sounders have big expectations for the upcoming season.

The goal is reaching the MLS Cup final for the first time in franchise history.

To try and accomplish that goal, a year after falling a game short in the Western Conference final against Los Angeles, the Sounders are going into the season with a roster that is still in flux after an offseason that's already had significant changes.

Gone is striker Fredy Montero, on loan to Millonarios in Colombia. Gone is defensive stalwart Jeff Parke, traded to Philadelphia.

Likely gone will be midfielder and designated player Christian Tiffert, the result of Seattle seeking to add Nigerian forward Obafemi Martins.

The result is that Seattle may not be a completely settled team when the regular season begins on Saturday night against Montreal, followed quickly by a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Mexican power Tigres.

But it's the outcome later in the year that matters most to the Sounders.

"I'd be lying if I said I wish on January 19 or whenever we started preseason that we didn't have our squad completely settled. I knew that this year was going to be a tough one and unfortunately it coincides with a big Champions League quarterfinal," Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer said.

"But our big goal is MLS Cup and so we were willing to sacrifice a little bit of the front end to make sure we had things sorted come the summer as we head into the playoff hunt and hopefully tracking down an MLS Cup."

Following the deepest postseason run in the franchise's short history, the Sounders should again be among the elite of the loaded Western Conference.

They have a star up front with Eddie Johnson, a wall in the back with goalkeeper Michael Gspurning and one of the most talented midfields in the league with Osvaldo Alonso, Mauro Rosales, Brad Evans, Steve Zakuani and newly acquired designated player Shalrie Joseph.

Yet there remains just enough questions about the Sounders - namely who will pair with Johnson, and along the defensive back line - to keep them from being an overwhelming favorite going into the season.

But anything less than a deep run in the MLS playoffs - and likely a title game appearance - will be a disappointment.

"There is drive within us more than the expectations from outside, but we also want to reward our fans, reward our club for what they've done for us," Evans said.

With Montero gone, all of the attention up front will be on Johnson, coming off a season where he led Seattle in goals and earned his way into a call-up for the U.S. national team.

While Johnson and Montero never completely clicked in their one season playing together their dual presence created havoc for defenses. Johnson seemed to be the greater recipient, after scoring a team-high 14 goals in MLS play, but that was partly due to defenders wondering where Montero was lurking.

The most likely replacement would be David Estrada, who started last season on a scoring binge with five goals in 13 matches before breaking his left foot. Seattle could also use Sammy Ochoa or slide Zakuani or Rosales up front. Seattle is also trying to finalize a deal with Spanish club Levante to bring in Martins as another scoring threat.

"Does Eddie have the potential to score 20 goals? Yes he does. Is it going to happen? I'm not sure," Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said. "What's most important for us is that we score goals to win. If it's a situation where Eddie gets 20 assists instead of 20 goals, I probably wouldn't argue with that. He needs to be involved in our goal scoring opportunities."

Preventing goals will be just as big a concern for Seattle. Not because of its goalkeeper, however, after Gspurning had a stellar first year in the MLS, but due to the questions along the backline. When Seattle traded Parke, it lost its most consistent central defender.

The hope was that Patrick Ianni would team with Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and step into Parke's spot, but he's been sidelined for most of the preseason with a foot injury. Seattle drafted Eriq Zavaleta out of Indiana with its first pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Even though he was a forward and goal scorer in college, the Sounders project him as an eventual defender - a role that because of depth could be coming sooner than expected for the rookie.

The ability for Joseph to play a number of different positions gives Seattle some flexibility, but he likely won't be in game shape for a few weeks. Seattle also signed former Liverpool defender Djimi Traore before the start of the season.

"I'm glad they allowed me to come here and play with this group," Joseph said. "It's very special, very talented group and hopefully we can get the results every week we come out here and play."

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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