Sounders get an A for new additions

Major League Soccer's losses could mean huge gains in goals and victories for the A-League's Seattle Sounders this season.

The defection of two MLS teams — the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny — left as many as 50 talented players searching for new homes when the MLS underwent contraction in January.

The biggest boost to the Sounders comes from Los Angeles Galaxy castoff Brian Ching, a 2000 Gonzaga graduate who split time with Seattle and the Galaxy in 2001.

It also means that former MLS players Andrew Gregor, Leighton O'Brien, Jason Farrell and Darren Sawatzky would look to Seattle for playing time instead of in the pared-down MLS. All five players figure to give the Sounders' offense the kick it needs to erase a forgettable 2001 campaign.

"The whole A-League benefited from contraction," said veteran Seattle goalkeeper Preston Burpo, a seventh-year pro and sixth-year Sounder. "It's a joke that a guy like Brian (Ching) isn't starting in that league (MLS).

"He's pretty good. He's been dominating in training since we started April 1."

The Sounders open the season tonight (8 o'clock) at the Portland Timbers, then return home to host the Timbers tomorrow at 5 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.

The influx of experienced offensive talent should help Seattle (13-12-1 league last season) rebound from missing the A-League playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.

Local product Brian Schmetzer, a 39-year-old former Sounder, takes over as head coach for Bernie James, who was fired following the season.

"Change is good, I guess," O'Brien said. "It was a management decision, and I think it's going to be a big season for the Sounders. We made a lot of good additions that should help us score." The early season for the Sounders, who were 4-2-0 during exhibitions, hinges on how quickly the team jells. Ching could be the key piece of the puzzle.

"Contraction had a very direct impact on our team as Andrew and Brian dropped to us," said Schmetzer, a 1980 graduate of Nathan Hale High School who is making his pro coaching debut. "It's not good for MLS, but it's a positive for A-League teams."

Sawatzky, a 1991 graduate of Jefferson High School in Federal Way, struggled with six goals and five assists for 17 points with the Timbers last season, but in 2000 with Seattle he was one of the top scorers in the A-League. The seventh-year pro, now 29, piled up 41 points in 2000 on 16 goals and nine assists.

Gregor played sparingly for MLS's Kansas City Wizards in 2001 after tallying 21 points on eight goals and five assists as a Sounder in 2000."We're talented and I think we'll have a better offensive team this year," Burpo said. "Does that mean we'll have more wins? Ask me in July or August."

The 23-year-old Ching provided instant offense when he joined the Sounders for six games in 2001, scoring three goals and adding one assist when the Galaxy had off days.

"When I came down from the Galaxy, I had fun playing with these guys," said the Hawaii-born Ching, who was released by the Galaxy in February. "There was pressure to do well, but I didn't really feel it.

"Since they struggled scoring goals that was one reason this year that they lobbied to bring me and Darren Sawatzky here."

Despite his release in February, Ching was allowed to work out with Los Angeles through the end of March. The result was a fitness advantage coming into camp.

"I came into training in top shape and ready to go," Ching said. "It makes my team much stronger."

Schmetzer realizes that the better Ching plays, the more likely he'll be in demand again from the MLS.

"Brian Ching is going to be a star," Schmetzer said. "The kid will be playing at a higher level. He has size, strength, great heading ability, great shooting ability, good speed, soft feet, good timing on runs and good positioning on the field."

O'Brien led the Sounders in scoring and was the team MVP last season with 29 points on 11 goals and seven assists. His role should shift to more of a distributor with proven scorers Ching, Sawatzky and Gregor joining front-line threats Farrell, Kyle Smith and Nate Daligcon.