Sounders Title Defense Begins

84 days ago on a freezing night in Toronto, Osvaldo Alonso and many others raised the MLS Cup above their heads as confetti rained down on the entire team. For the first time in club history, the Seattle Sounders became Major League Soccer Champions. Twelve weeks later, the road to defending their title now begins.

Seattle starts their ninth MLS regular season on Saturday with a new-look team featuring key additions Will Bruin, a forward from Houston, Harry Shipp, a midfielder from Montreal, and Gustav Svensson from Chinese club Guangzhou.

Gone are veterans Nelson Valdez, Andreas Ivanschitz and Tyrone Mears, who helped Seattle to their first Championship. Valdez, a Sounders playoff hero, returned to his home country of Paraguay joining Cerro Porteño, Ivanschitz is currently with FC Viktoria Plzen of the Czech First League and Mears was traded to MLS expansion club Atlanta United for $50,000 in General Allocation Money.

Other departures from the 2016 roster include midfielder Erik Friberg, who started in December's MLS Cup, and Zach Scott, who retired from professional soccer as a champion.

Despite the meaningful departures, some say the Sounders are better than ever with General Manager Garth Lagerwey making moves to increase depth and versatility. The club also signed Seyi Adekoya (University of California, Los Angeles) and Henry Wingo (University of Washington) as Homegrown Players, a duo that has impressed throughout pre-season action.

Lagerwey's move to bring in Svensson is paying off immediately with the Swedish defensive-midfielder set to start at right back for at least the first five to seven weeks of the season as Brad Evans nurses a calf muscle strain back to full health.

"Right back is a fun position if you have the fitness," Svensson said at a recent practice. "You can bomb up and down the side."

After undergoing a heart procedure in the middle of 2016, Seattle also sees the return of United States soccer living-legend Clint Dempsey.

Few Sounders supporters can forget Seattle travelling to Orlando in early August 2016 for one of the only four matches where rookie of the year Jordan Morris, newly-signed Nicolas Lodeiro and Dempsey all played together. Dempsey recorded a hat trick in a 3-1 Sounders win over Orlando, sparking a 9-2-3 run towards the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference.

"The way we look at it is that we won the MLS Cup and we've added Clint Dempsey," Lagerwey said.

With Dempsey cleared to play, the trio are set to start the 2017 MLS opener for Seattle and going forward, be a triple threat that will undoubtedly concern opposing coaches as long as the three are healthy.

One report, in the form of a wildfire, caught and spread across social media quickly two weeks ago that Keisuke Honda, one of the greatest Japanese soccer players of all time, was hours away from making the move from AC Milan to Seattle. Honda, a winger in Italy, would join Morris, Lodeiro and Dempsey to create an unprecedented and dangerous four-headed attack.

The Sounders declined to comment on the Italian report via a club spokesperson, however, Jeff Carlisle of ESPN wrote that one league source stated "there was a 'better than 50-50 chance' that Seattle will acquire Honda." Fans must continue to wait with anxious ears for more news on the potential move.

For now, the club will start Saturday's opener in Houston with much of the same group the won the MLS Cup: Lodeiro, a key to turning around 2016, Morris, who shows no signs of a sophomore slump, plus the tandems of Chad Marshall and Roman Torres on the defensive side plus Alonso and Cristian Roldan in the midfield. Joevin Jones starts his second season in Seattle at left back as well with MLS Cup MVP Stefan Frei in goal.

Captaining the Sounders ship again is Seattle native and Head Coach Brian Schmetzer, who took over mid-season for Sigi Schmid in 2016 and guided the club all the way to a championship parade through downtown in December. Improving on his 8-2-4 regular-season record as Interim Head Coach will be no easy task.

Remember the feeling when Obafemi Martins departed for China in February 2016? It may be hard to believe that came just one year ago. Uncertainty for the future has evolved into the focus of defending a title. With names added and removed, the goal remains the same: Confetti raining down in December as another MLS Cup is hoisted to the skies.

The 2017 regular season and title defense kicks off Saturday at 5:30 p.m. (PT) in Houston, Texas.

Jackson Felts' 2017 MLS Predictions:

Western Conference:

1. Seattle Sounders

2. Portland Timbers

3. FC Dallas

Eastern Conference:

1. Toronto FC

2. New York City FC

3. Montreal Impact

Supporter's Shield: Seattle Sounders

MLS Cup: Seattle Sounders over Montreal Impact

MVP: Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle)

Golden Boot: Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto)

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