Is it possible to replace Kasey Keller?
The answer to that question will go a long way toward determining whether Sounders FC take the next step in 2012, after three successful seasons that ended anticlimactically in the first round of the playoffs, prompting a chorus of "what-ifs."Thanks to a solid veteran core and an influx of new talent, Sounders 4.0 is capable of writing a more satisfying ending to the script, despite the loss of Keller, the franchise's foundation in goal who hung up his cleats at 41--ending a stellar 20-year professional career--only to take on another high-profile role as color commentator for the team's TV and radio broadcasts.
More than 11,000 fans who braved last night's frigid temperatures at the Clink got their first look at Keller's successor, Michael Gspurning, in a 2-0 Community Shield match victory over Mexican first-division side Jaguares de Chiapas.
Gspurning, 30, has played nine seasons professionally in Austria and Greece, with two starts for the Austrian national team. At a rangy 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds--dimensions suggesting a Seahawks wide receiver, Sonics shooting guard or Mariners first baseman, and a full three inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Keller--he was rarely tested in his home debut but displayed good lateral quickness, anticipation, timing, and aggressiveness (where appropriate) the few times he was challenged.
More than just the seventh and final match of the preseason--the Sounders won five, with two draws--it was a dress rehearsal for next Wednesday's first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals against Santos Laguna, a superior Mexican squad which blazed through its qualifying group, winning four of six matches and outscoring its opposition 16-6. The winner of the aggregate-goal series will advance to the final four of the annual competition to crown the best professional team in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Even more significant than Gspurning's debut last night were those of two other major offseason signings, Swedish defender Adam Johansson and Danish midfielder Christian Sivebæk, whose solid play was reflected in the assists that set up Fredy Montero's two goals in a 12-minute span of the second half.
Johansson, 29, for seven seasons a mainstay for Göteborg of Sweden's top division, made an immediate impact from the back with incisive runs down the right side that drew defenders away from the middle of the pitch, giving players in Rave Green more space to receive his passes and more time to create when they did. His perfectly placed cross caught Montero streaking into the box for the 61st-minute header that broke the ice. Chiapas was unable to solve Johansson, a de facto fifth midfielder in the Jaguares half without abdicating his primary duties in his own end.
Sivebæk, a rising star at 24, is a physical presence at 6-3 and 195 pounds who presents significant matchup problems on the wing. He came on for Alvaro Fernandez in the 66th minute and paid dividends seven minutes later, looping a well-placed ball into the middle that found Montero for the second goal, a brilliantly struck chip into the upper corner that caught Jaguares keeper Edgar Hernandez flat-footed.
To score both of your team's goals in an Major League Soccer, Champions League, or U.S. Open Cup match is impressive, to do it in a friendly somewhat less so. But Montero's were utterly deserving, and the latter was a thing of beauty. He finished the preseason with five goals in five matches, and is poised to add to his team-record 34 over three seasons as play that counts begins this month.
If last night's effort is any evidence, he'll have plenty of support.