For the Seattle Sounders, the start of their upcoming MLS is Back Tournament slate means their title defense finally resumes.
It seems like it's been forever since the Sounders topped Toronto FC in the 2019 MLS Cup in December, but for the moment they're still the league's reigning champs. Speaking with reporters on a Wednesday conference call, midfielder Cristian Roldan said he and his teammates are aware of what comes with that.
"I still feel like there's a target on our back because we're the previous champions and rightfully so, I think," Roldan said. "The one thing that's probably up in the air, is whoever wins this tournament, they're in a weird space, it's a tournament in the middle of our season that is still up in the air. So who knows then that time comes, but we certainly feel like we're the defending champions and we have a target on our back so we're going to have to be prepared to get everybody's best game."
Going into the tournament, the Sounders have reason to feel good about where they stand. Star playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro is healthy and ready to go after missing all of Seattle's earlier games in 2020 with hamstring tendinitis, meaning the return of the team's most important player. New signings Joao Paulo and Yeimar Gomez Andrade are rejoining a talented first-choice XI that also features Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidiaz and Roldan.
One of the most interesting subplots when it comes to the Sounders, though, will be what they get from their depth players in a tournament that promises plenty of squad rotation. Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer cited veteran center back Shane O'Neill as a player who has looked ready to contribute, while Roldan discussed his takeaways from training with the young players Seattle signed to the first team leading up to the tournament.
"I think it's a really good opportunity for [the young players] to prove themselves," Roldan said. "I've been impressed with all the youngsters, especially one of the latest signing, Shandon [Hopeau], a player that has that extra ability to take players on as well as Ethan [Dobbelaere], who works his butt off and listens, he's a sponge on the field, which is really good to see. Josh [Atencio] is doing his thing, you go on and on, these kids are willing to learn, they're willing to put in the effort as well as take chances and be willing to compete against these senior players."
Overall, Schmetzer said his players are simply ready to get back to playing. Lodeiro, in particular, is raring to get back on the field, and Schmetzer said that following all training and preparation, his hope is that finally getting the payoff of competitive action will spark the Sounders on another run.
Seattle begin tournament play on Friday against the San Jose Earthquakes (9 pm ET | ESPN; TSN in Canada).
"Guys are ready, Nico's ready, and I think the team is ready to have these games start," Schmetzer said. "I think that will help keep them from thinking about the monotony of being in a bubble and not being able to do perhaps as many things as they're accustomed to. So I think the game coming up on Friday certainly is going to make the team feel a little better mentally."