Seattle, WA (SportsNetwork.com) - In its six-year MLS history, Seattle Sounders FC has operated as a model franchise.
The Sounders have made the playoffs every year since they came into the league in 2009 and last season was no exception.
The club started slowly, but picked up the pace as the season wore on, eventually rising to the top of the Western Conference by August thanks to a run of eight wins in nine games.
But following a 2-0 victory over Real Salt Lake on September 8, Seattle embarked on a franchise-worst seven-game winless streak that included a 5-1 loss to Colorado followed by a 4-1 defeat against Vancouver at home.
Seattle did well enough earlier in the season to withstand the lengthy winless run and finished fourth in the West with a 15-12-7 record for 52 points. But the team ran up against the Portland Timbers and lost in the conference semifinals.
Head coach Sigi Schmid will be on the hottest seat in the league this season if the club gets off to a slow start, but he is dealing with a fairly high amount of roster turnover.
In attack, Seattle has a pair of bona-fide superstars in Obafemi Martins and United States national team captain Clint Dempsey. Former leading scorer Eddie Johnson left via trade, but was replaced by Kenny Cooper.
Both Dempsey and Martins had some struggles with injury last season, but if they are healthy and can work together with Cooper, Seattle's attack should be quite potent.
Dempsey will have to pull the strings in his attacking midfield role and make sure he involves Martins as well as Cooper for the Sounders to be successful.
In the midfield, Osvaldo Alonso remains the club's most important player, along with newcomer Marco Pappa and Brad Evans out wide. Alonso is the midfield destroyer and should be able to boss the game defensively. He'll need to improve his offensive production and hone his leadership skills in order to make sure that collapses like last season don't happen again.
Pappa, a former Chicago Fire player, was acquired by the Sounders via the league's allocation process, coming over from SC Heerenveen in the Dutch Eredivisie.
Prior to going to Europe, Pappa was a mainstay with the Chicago Fire, scoring 26 goals and adding 16 assists over 112 appearances. He's also been capped 30 times by Guatemala.
"Marco is a proven and established player who has been very productive in this league," Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson said. "He has the technical quality to create chances for himself and his teammates at any moment, and is a high-character guy who brings excitement and quality to our midfield."
Pappa will need to regain the form he found in MLS in 2012 as he replaces Mauro Rosales in the midfield as Rosales moved on to Chivas USA.
There will be some new faces along the back line this season, starting in goal, where former Toronto FC man Stefan Frei will be between the sticks in place of Michael Gspurning, whose option was declined following last season.
Frei has had a solid career, but suffered a broken wrist and lost his starting spot in Toronto to Joe Bendik. Frei will be motivated to prove he can still play at a high level after missing so much time due to injury.
Along the defense, there will be some new faces with a central defense pairing of Jalil Anibaba and Chad Marshall along with Leo Gonzalez at left back and DeAndre Yedlin at right back.
Anibaba comes over from Chicago, where he started every game, but the Fire conceded the third-most goals in the league last season, while Marshall arrives from Columbus, where he played for Schmid in 2008 when the Crew won MLS Cup and the Supporters' Shield.
But the years haven't been kind to Marshall since 2009. He hasn't been nearly as good and, consequently, has watched the Crew continue to slide down the table. In order for the Sounders defense to improve this season, Marshall will have to have a career renaissance under Schmid.
Schmid's seat will be awfully hot if the new faces fail to jell early on and the club gets off to a slow start, but they have the pieces in attack and midfield to paper over the cracks of a slow back line and fight for a playoff spot.
ACQUISITIONS: Stefan Frei (GK), Chad Marshall (D), Jalil Anibaba (D), Kenny Cooper (F), Marco Pappa (M), Chad Barrett (F), Corey Hertzog (F), Damien Lowe (D)
LOSSES: Michael Gspurning (GK), Mauro Rosales (M), Adam Moffat (M), Eddie Johnson (F), Jhon-Kennedy Hurtado (D), Patrick Ianni (D), Alex Caskey (M).
OUTLOOK: Dempsey struggled with injuries when he arrived in Seattle from Tottenham, but will have to be in top form all season to drive the Seattle attack with Cooper and Martins. Alonso anchors a strong midfield, but the questions will come in the back with an aging Marshall and Anibaba. Lamar Neagle will help the attack off the bench looking to build on his career- best eight goals from last season. Seattle has the pieces to reach the postseason for a sixth straight season, but it will be how those pieces come together that determines whether the Sounders can compete in a difficult Western Conference.