SEATTLE — It's a little quieter around the Seattle Sounders these days. Such is the case with former Sounders goalkeeper and American soccer star Kasey Keller — occasionally known for his volume — having decided to call it a career.
So while Sounders practices this preseason might not have the same voice being heard everywhere on the field, that doesn't mean the expectations are any different for a franchise that's considered among the league elite, but is still trying to solve three years of failing to get past the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs.
"I think everyone's goal is to still get over the hump of that first round. It's still fresh," Seattle midfielder Brad Evans said. "Hopefully you see that rub off in the season with a little bit more of an edge."
Unlike previous seasons, there's no toe-dipping to start the 2012 campaign. Seattle gets a cold splash to the face when it hosts Mexican power Santos Laguna in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday night. The return match of the two-leg aggregate-goal series is March 14 in Mexico, followed by Seattle's return home to open the MLS season on March 17 against Toronto.
"The main thing we've changed is we've tried to identify who we thought was in that group that was probably going to start in that game and we've tried to play them together more than, say, normal," coach Sigi Schmid said. "Normally in preseasons we would maybe mix the groups a little more."
That's given preseason training a different level of intensity from the past, knowing that they'll need to be in top form against a Mexican club in the middle of its league season.
"Sigi's said this is playoffs from day one, because it is. It's an elimination game from our first game," Evans said. "It's a different mentality around here. I kind of feel like it's midseason right now for us, which is the way we have to approach this or else we're going to get swept off the board and nobody wants a poor showing in this tournament."
While the Champions League might be Seattle's ticket to international prominence, it's ultimately what the Sounders do in the MLS season that proves most important. And that starts with trying to match overwhelming league favorite Los Angeles and ultimately advance past the first-round of the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Last year, Seattle charged late and was likely the only team that could have challenged the Galaxy in the postseason. Seattle closed the year with the second-best record in the league — a franchise best 18-7-9 and 63 points. But a Sounders-Galaxy conference final never materialized after Seattle fell behind in the first-leg of the playoffs' opening round at Real Salt Lake and couldn't make up the difference in the second-leg at home, leading to another early exit and an abrupt end to Keller's career.
Then Los Angeles went out in the offseason and got David Beckham to stay, brought back Juninho on loan from Brazil and convinced Edson Buddle to return from Europe and solidified itself as the clear league favorite for 2012.
Seattle's intent to keep up with what Los Angeles did in the offseason was evident in February when one-time U.S. national team striker Eddie Johnson became available and the Sounders sent two promising young prospects — Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle — to Montreal for the rights to sign Johnson and give Seattle its most talented striking duo along with young Columbian star Fredy Montero since the franchise was born.
"I missed the league. I didn't come back for the money — know a lot of people were saying that — I came back because I wanted to get my career back going," Johnson said. "I wanted to be in an environment where I knew I could be successful."
The midfield was bolstered by the return of MLS newcomer of the year Mauro Rosales and Evans being healthy for the first time since the beginning of the 2010 season. He also got a bit more experience with a U.S. national team call-up in January for a pair of matches against Venezuela and Panama.
Seattle's most important player may remain midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, but Seattle also attempted to strengthen the backline with the addition of Swedish defenseman Adam Johansson to team with veterans Jeff Parke and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado on the backline.
Still, the one that will get most of the attention early in the season will be new goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, simply because of who he is replacing. Keller wasn't just a fixture in American soccer, he was a revered figure hailing from the Seattle area only to conclude his career by making sure the Sounders were successful.
Keller was also Seattle's captain, a role that will likely not be determined until part of the season has passed, and as if Gspurning needs anymore pressure, Keller will be watching from above while working as a broadcaster for the club this season.
"We are very hungry. The first day ... we had a session in the gym and then the team decided to go out and have a game for ourselves to 11 goals and no one was stopping," Gspurning said. "... I've played many years of professional soccer and this is really unbelievable. The team is really hungry."
Seattle also wasn't given any favors in terms of the schedule. Through the new unbalanced league format, the Sounders will play 24 matches against Western Conference foes — three matches against each side. While they get the Galaxy twice at home, Seattle has to play twice at rivals Portland and Vancouver, and don't get the Timbers at home until October.