Even on an absolutely cloudless day, the light in Arizona is pale, washed-out, yellow-white—nothing like the electric lemon of an August day in Seattle. There’s green around, but it’s the unassuming herbal green of palo verde and mesquite trees, and of cactus in a variety of Dr. Seuss shapes: cholla, ocotillo, beavertail, barrel, and the iconic saguaro.
The first blade of grass I see anywhere—after flying into Phoenix on February 18 and driving two hours to Tucson—is on the pitch at the Kino Sports Complex. It is here that the Seattle Sounders face the first significant test of their 2015 campaign: the Desert Diamond Cup soccer tournament, an 11-day competition that serves as a warm-up to to the Major League Soccer season scheduled to begin this week.
The team looks to get back in shape and move on from a 2014 season that came to a cruel end—falling just short of their top priority, the MLS Cup, when they were knocked out of the playoffs on November 30 by the eventual Cup winners, the L.A. Galaxy. The road to redemption begins on this pitch tonight.
For most fans, that road will begin on Sunday, March 8, when the team strides into CenturyLink Field to face the New England Revolution. (Assuming collective bargaining agreement negotiations don’t collapse and lead to a strike.) But for the players, the first step is here in Arizona, in this match against host club FC Tucson, a member of the lower-division Premier Development League.
Unlike bucolic Starfire in Tukwila, the Sounders’ usual training facility, Kino is not nestled against a river in a leafy suburb; rather, it’s in an industrial part of Tucson, surrounded by chain-link fencing, truck traffic, and, in the distance, a pretty view of the sage-and-dun Santa Catalina Mountains bordering the city on the northeast. 1,856 fans are here on this Wednesday night—most of them, of course, to cheer on FC Tucson.
Among them is the local supporters’ group, self-dubbed the Cactus Pricks—as rowdy, if not quite as numerous, as any analogous MLS group. A dozen or so have brought a couple of flags, a bass drum more than capable of drowning out the PA announcement of the opening lineups, and their outside voices. Their main chant is an old soccer favorite: Come on, Tucson, score a goal/It’s really very simple/Put the ball into the net/And we’ll go freakin’ mental
When a Sounder makes, in the Pricks’ estimation, a card-worthy foul, their bilingual chant is punctuated with the drum: A-ma-ri-llo! [bam! bam! bam bam bam!] That means yellow! [bam! bam! bam bam bam!]
And at one point they offer—inexplicably, since the Portland Timbers are not playing in this tournament: Portland sucks! Meow, meow, meow!
There are Timbers fans here in Tucson, though, judging by their T-shirts and jerseys. Other gear proclaims allegiance to MLS clubs in Toronto and Washington, D.C., as well as overseas clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal, and Bayern Munich. Supporters also don the colors of the U.S. and Mexican national teams—plus, of course, those of the other four teams participating in the DDC: New England, the 2014 Eastern Conference champions who lost to L.A. in the Cup final, and three teams from the Western Conference, fierce rivals all: the Colorado Rapids, with a reputation as bruisers; Real Salt Lake, a perennial thorn in the Sounders’ side; and Sporting Kansas City, back in our conference now that the East is adding 2015’s two expansion teams, New York City FC and Orlando City.
That all these fans mix is one thing that makes this tournament unique; any MLS match, naturally, is dominated by home-team supporters. Sounders fans, though, are known as prodigious away-game travelers. Dan Gibson, director of corporate communications with Visit Tucson and an enthusiastic DDC facilitator, estimates that 300 Sounders faithful came here for the tournament—and for a chance to get a little closer to their favorite players than they can at CenturyLink.
Kickoff is just after 8 p.m., and the Sounders look like they haven’t played in years. I don’t mean rusty, I mean hungry—starved for soccer after weeks away, their pent-up energy finally uncorked. The opening minutes of the match seem stuck in fast-forward. Veteran defender Zach Scott later confirms that “everyone was rarin’ to go”—though he jokes that not every aspect of spring training (which began January 29) is so eagerly anticipated: “When you’re working on the fitness portion, you start second-guessing.”
Tonight’s starting 11 seems like overkill for a lower-division opponent like FC Tucson: goalkeeper Stefan Frei; defenders Tyrone Mears (of tonight’s starters, he’s the only one new to the team this season), Brad Evans, Chad Marshall, and Leo Gonzalez; midfielders Marco Pappa, Micheal Azira, Gonzalo Pineda, and Lamar Neagle; and forwards Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. But of course they’re here to get in shape, not to be gracious guests. It’s very nearly an ideal starting 11 for the Sounders, except for the absence of midfielder Osvaldo Alonso—by general consensus the team MVP for its six MLS seasons—who’s recovering from February 6 groin surgery. (He has, though, since joined the team in Tucson for training, and head coach Sigi Schmid later tells me Alonso’s recovery is “ahead of schedule.”) Azira, however, is holding his own as a replacement—he’s “playing his ass off,” as one overheard fan puts it.
Lamar Neagle (born in Tacoma, his nickname is “253”) scores in the fourth minute; one minute later, another shot goes just inches over the net. He scores again, at 27´; Dempsey scores at 11´ and 37´. At halftime it’s 4-0.
The fence five feet behind the Sounders’ bench is thronged with fans, taking advantage of the access. One tosses Pineda a ball to sign; kids swarm for a photo or an autograph. A security officer in uniform takes a selfie with Dempsey, to the cheers of the crowd.
In the 61st minute, MLS veteran keeper Troy Perkins, just signed by the Sounders on January 13, is subbed in for Frei, and by 70´ the other 10 players are replaced. In regular-season matches, only three subs are allowed, but preseason is about giving as many players as possible a chance to play, allowing coaches to observe and evaluate the talent in a competitive situation. For just about everyone, it’s the first chance to see some of the Sounders’ recent additions, including Cristian Roldan, formerly a standout on the University of Washington team, and Andres Correa from Colombia.
Probably the most talked-about newcomer—even though he signed with the Sounders a year ago—is forward Kevin Parsemain, who impressed during last year’s preseason but was sidelined the entire regular season with a torn ACL. He is picking up just where he left off, stunning FC Tucson with goals at 88´ and 89´, bringing the final score to 6-0. Despite the beatdown, Tucson fans are excited about the opportunity to see some of MLS’s best players up close. As one ardent fan puts it, “I’m so glad you’re here, man. This is stellar.”
This win likely provides a much-needed boost to the Sounders’ confidence. Yes, 2014 was the Sounders’ most successful season yet: For the fourth time in their six years in MLS, the team won the Lamar Hunt Open Cup, open to all professional U.S. teams in any division, and they ended the regular season hoisting the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the MLS team with the best regular-season record. But not getting to the MLS Cup final left “a sour taste in everyone’s mouth,” Scott admits. (The Pricks in Tucson, knowing this, gleefully rub it in with the chant “It’s all about the bass, no treble!”)
New general manager Garth Lagerwey makes it clear that the MLS Cup is the team’s primary goal for this season. A close second is success in the CONCACAF Champions League, an international competition for clubs in North and Central America and the Caribbean; the organization, Lagerwey says, is making a “13-month commitment” to these matches, which run from midsummer through April 2016. Both these milestones are vital, he says, “if we want to evolve the club and make it the global brand it could be.” Recently hired away from Real Salt Lake, the gung-ho Lagerwey made an impact almost immediately by facilitating the signing of Roldan, a player the Sounders particularly coveted, in the MLS SuperDraft on January 15.
Before Saturday’s match, an Air Force officer festively, and against regulations, sports a Sounders scarf while in full uniform. Outside the stadium, a small banda plays and gets people dancing to norteno, a musical genre that’s restored the tuba to its rightful position of dominance. A spiffy food truck, Eegee’s, offers its signature item, slushies studded with chunks of fresh-fruit pulp; it’s a Tucson thing, and everyone loves them. Tonight it’s Sounders supporters who have brought the bass drum and who are chanting lustily throughout the match. Our opponent is Kansas City. The stadium is packed; the PA announcer later reports that the crowd of 3,661 is a record for Kino. Judging by the decibels when a team scores, Sounders fans predominate.
The starters are the same as on Wednesday, except that Martins is out and Scott is in. There’s some further realignment: Schmid is taking advantage of the preseason to try out a new formation, three defenders and five midfielders, rather than the usual four and four.
This does seem to make a difference: KC scores in the 34th and 39th minutes. Though they’re a strong team and traditionally a challenge, the early deficit for the Sounders is surprising, not to mention disheartening. A third goal at 73´ seems to put the game away. But two subs, in at 66´, are able to do what the starters could not: Victor Mansaray—who just turned 18 and is still a student at Fife High School—scores at 74´, fan favorite Kenny Cooper at 81´. The Sounders have a history of beating KC dramatically in the final moments, and the fans are aching for this tradition to continue, but no luck: The match ends 3-2.
For a lot of fans—a lot of bloggers and commenters, at any rate—one question mark going into 2015 is the Sounders’ defense. Though it’s anchored by Marshall, MLS Defender of the Year in 2014 (and 2008 and 2009, for that matter), losing wunderkind right back DeAndre Yedlin to Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League during the offseason is causing some panic.
Schmid agrees tacitly, telling me on Thursday (before the loss to KC) that one of his main concerns for 2015 is to “make sure we give up less goals.” In MLS matches in 2014, the Sounders scored 65 goals, the second highest total, but also gave up 50, tied for highest among the 10 teams that made the playoffs. So in another experiment, he’s starting this season by moving stalwart Brad Evans, the team’s Swiss Army knife, to the back line next to Marshall.
During our chat, Schmid also shares some insight about the league’s flashier star acquisitions this year: Frank Lampard and David Villa to NYCFC, Kaka to Orlando, Steven Gerrard to L.A. Not all these men quite belie MLS’s unfair reputation as a “retirement league” for higher-powered European clubs, but Schmid feels Villa and Kaka, to name two, are at a point in their career “where they still have things they could have done in Europe.” Stiffer competition will only improve every team’s play, and he points out that in MLS “there are no easy games”—as compared to the top leagues in, say, England or Spain, where’s there’s a much greater discrepancy between the top and bottom teams. Since the skill level in MLS is more consistent, Schmid is confident that “fans will find [MLS] pretty entertaining.”
The rest of the DDC doesn’t go quite as planned. The February 25 match against New England ended in a flukey loss: A fourth-minute goal by Cooper was followed by an own goal and a very-last-second penalty kick awarded to NE that put them up 2-1 immediately before the final whistle. With magnificent bitterness, Dave Clark called it a “deceitful win” with a “dirty, lying scoreline” at the Sounder at Heart blog. And the February 28 replay against Kansas City ended 1-1 with a beautiful goal from Obafemi Martins.
Still, the team’s larger preseason objectives were met: to see how the new kids do in a competitive situation; to get everyone back into the rhythm of playing; and incidentally, to do it in a destination vacation spot that rewards fans who make the trip. “We know we have [to do] many things to get better, but at the end of the day we trust the coach,” says Marco Pappa, a midfielder new to the Sounders in 2014 who quickly made himself invaluable—most memorably with the dazzling down-to-the-wire goal that clinched the Supporters’ Shield. He sums up the sentiments of many, no doubt, when he says the team’s ultimate motivation is to “give the Sounders fans what they deserve.”