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Sounders vets told to take next step ... or else

TUKWILA -- Before coach Sigi Schmid sent his players onto the Starfire Sports Complex practice pitch to begin their third season Tuesday, he informed returning veterans this might be their last chance to win an Major League Soccer championship as Sounders.

"We went around; I said 'How many players have been here now for three years?' And there were a number of hands that got up," Schmid said after practice. "I said 'This is the year now that you've got to step up a little bit forward. ... And this is the year that if we don't accomplish some of the things that we feel that we can accomplish, then we've got to start looking at breaking up that core.' So this is an important year."

Fifteen Sounders have been with the club since the first season: Osvaldo Alonso, Terry Boss, Brad Evans, Leo Gonzalez, Taylor Graham, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Patrick Ianni, Nate Jaqua, Kasey Keller, Roger Levesque, Fredy Montero, James Riley, Zach Scott, Tyson Wahl and Steve Zakuani.

Schmid acknowledged all they have done over their first two seasons to make Sounders FC one of Major League Soccer's most successful expansion teams.

However, Schmid won an MLS Cup in his third season at Columbus and in his fourth season at Los Angeles, so he wants his current club to know from the first day that more is expected.

"We're one of only four teams that have made the playoffs the last two years -- which is a great accomplishment," Schmid said. "We're the first expansion team to win a trophy in each of our first two years -- that's a great accomplishment. But in four playoff games we've scored one goal, so we've got to score more goals in the playoffs. To score more goals in the playoffs, we've got to score more goals in the regular season. To score more goals in the regular season, we've got to score more goals at practice."

The players who remember the 2009 and 2010 seasons ending in first-round playoff defeats say they share Schmid's vision.

"We definitely fell short last year, there's no hiding from that," Zakuani said. "We can say kind of we won the Open Cup, and Champions League was a new experience, and we made the playoffs again. But we fell short. We were a better team than that. Our goals are going to stay the same: We want to win MLS Cup."

On Tuesday, the returning players were joined by three newcomers who played on other professional teams last season: defender Danny Earls from the MLS champion Colorado Rapids, forward O'Brian White from Toronto FC, and midfielder Erik Friberg from BK Hacken of Sweden.

"Of course, they're good," Friberg said of his new teammates. "But I don't focus on them today. I focus on me today: to come and be fit."

Other new faces belonged to camp invitees and rookie draft picks, led by top selection Michael Tetteh, a wide midfielder/defender from UC Santa Barbara.

"The little game that we played, the ball was moving fast, everybody was moving," Tetteh said of his first professional practice. "You have to know where the ball has to be, and it's just very, very quick."

Also practicing were midfielder Evans and defender Hurtado, veterans who missed most of last season with injuries.

However, forwards Jaqua and Blaise Nkufo and defender Taylor Graham remain restricted because of injuries.

Good health, Schmid said is one of the keys to any championship season.

But in other ways, he said he sees similarities between his third Sounders team and that third Columbus club that won Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup.

"At the end of year two in Columbus, I felt like we were starting to catch a good rhythm, he said. "And at the end of year two here we obviously caught a good rhythm as well. So, I think we're comparable in a lot of ways.

"But to win a championship you need a little bit of luck, you need a little bit of good fortune staying away from injuries, and you need all those things."

* Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808 blog.thenewstribune.com/soccer

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