'12 Season Preview: Sounders eyeing playoff improvement

Seattle Sounders FC has been a major success since joining Major League Soccer in 2009, but the club is living under the burden of one glaring stigma: their poor playoff record.

The Sounders have been the toast of American soccer since their inaugural season in MLS, making the postseason all three years and finishing runners-up in the race for the 2011 MLS Supporters' Shield. The club also clinched three straight U.S. Open Cup titles from 2009-2011.

But for all the success Sigi Schmid has brought to the Emerald City, Seattle has consistently managed to fall short when it matters most as the club has not been able to advance past the Western Conference semifinals.

No different than the past three years, Seattle is a strong bet to make the postseason as the core group of the team remains in tact.

Fredy Montero is still very much the star player for the club. The Colombian Designated Player has arguably his best season in Sounders green, netting 12 goals and adding nine assists in 30 league appearances.

Seattle also added U.S. international Eddie Johnson to take some of the scoring pressure off of Montero.

Johnson signed with the league in February and was selected by the Montreal Impact in the allocation process, but he was immediately traded to the Sounders in exchange for Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle.

Losing Fucito and Neagle certainly hurts Seattle's depth up front, but if Johnson can recapture the form from the early stages of his career that made him one of the most feared strikers in MLS, then the Sounders could have the makings of one of the most potentially dangerous forward partnerships in the league.

Providing support to the strikers will be a stable of familiar faces.

Designated Players Alvaro Fernandez and Mauro Rosales have proven that they can compliment Montero beautifully. Fernandez brings a very silky style of play to CenturyLink Field, while Rosales, the 2011 MLS Newcomer of the Year, contributed 13 assists in his debut season in America.

Solidifying the midfield with his sublime passing ability and superb positioning is Osvaldo Alonso. The Cuban was always an unsung hero for Seattle, but many around the league started to take notice of Alonso's contributions last season when he was given a great deal of consideration in MVP conversations.

The biggest hurdle for Seattle to overcome this season will be transition at the goalkeeper position. The Sounders replaced American legend Kasey Keller, who retired in the offseason, with Michael Gspurning. If the Austrian stopper can remain consistent in goal, like he has throughout his career in the Austrian and Greek leagues, then Seattle could be just as formidable defensively.

2011 IN REVIEW: Seattle finished second in the Western Conference, and overall, behind the Los Angeles Galaxy, claiming 63 points. But despite the regular-season success, the playoff woes continued as the Sounders were ousted by Real Salt Lake, 3-2 on aggregate, in the quarterfinals.

ACQUISITIONS: Marc Burch (D), Cordell Cato (F), Michael Gspurning (GK), Adam Johansson (D), Eddie Johnson (F), Christian Sivebaek (M).

LOSSES: Terry Boss (GK), Taylor Graham (D), Erik Friberg (M), Michael Fucito (F), Nate Jaqua (F), Kasey Keller (GK), Lamar Neagle (M), Pat Noonan (F), James Riley (D), Tyson Wahl (D).

OUTLOOK: The Sounders are destined to be a playoff team in 2012. It's in their DNA. The million-dollar question is whether they can finally advance beyond the first round. If Seattle gets hot down the stretch, then it could be one of the favorites to lift the MLS Cup.