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Sounders face 5 questions needing answers

SEATTLE -- Sounders FC continues its preseason preparation this week in Casa Grande, Ariz.

With its aim on an MLS Cup championship, here are five key questions the third-year MLS franchise will need to answer:

1. Where will the goals come from?

Despite back-to-back postseason appearances, Sounders FC ranked in the bottom half of the Western Conference in goals scored the last two seasons. And in four playoff games, Seattle has scored only once.

While forwards Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani are always dangerous, the team needs to establish a consistent third scoring option and get more help from the rest of the roster.

Forward Blaise Nkufo, a designated player entering his first full season with the club, seems like the most obvious choice. Other possibilities include forward/midfielder Mike Fucito, new arrival O'Brian White and forward Nate Jaqua.

2. Can this team get healthy, stay healthy?

Seattle was perhaps the most injured team in the league last season and can't afford a similar fate in 2011. Two vital players who missed most of the 2010 season, midfielder Brad Evans and defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, look healthy and ready to go in preseason.

A handful of other Sounders have been rehabbing injuries for most of this preseason: Jaqua (hip), defender Taylor Graham (calf) and forward/midfielder Pat Noonan (adductor).

3. Amid a familiar group, who is going to step up?

Another designated player, Uruguayan midfielder Alvaro Fernandez, could be primed for a breakout season.

Last year, Fernandez arrived at midseason after playing in the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The difficulties of adapting to new surroundings were compounded when paperwork issues prevented his family from joining him in Seattle. Now that he's settled and comfortable off the field, expect increased production from the versatile 25-year-old.

4. How will Seattle manage another packed schedule?

For the second half of the 2010 season, Sounders FC was playing two games almost every week. By adding two expansion teams this season -- coupled with participation in the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League -- the schedule has only increased.

Thankfully the roster has as well, from 24 players to 28, and coach Sigi Schmid has raved about the team's quality depth in training camp.

5. Will set pieces continue to haunt this team?

Improvements can be made both on defending set pieces and scoring off them. Goals from free kicks and corner kicks were rare for Sounders FC in 2010, and the team is without its top two kick-takers from last year: Freddie Ljungberg and Nathan Sturgis.

Defensively, Seattle does have the big bodies to excel in the air, including Jeff Parke and Patrick Ianni. For a team that likes to control the ball and keep possession, Sounders FC can't give away cheap goals on set pieces like it has in the past.