The Seattle Sounders ended the season with a thud instead of a bang — one series shy of the A-League championship match — but the club's coach and general manager see no reason for panic or wholesale changes.
That means team management expects minimal personnel change for 2004 despite talk that two top players — Andrew Gregor and Leighton O'Brien — are looking to play elsewhere.
"It's a tweak, not an overhaul," Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. "I just think I need to implement some improvements I can make with a little change and we need to add one or two impact players.
"If we re-sign the solid corps of players and add a couple of players, that could be the difference."
The Sounders finished 20-10-7 after falling to the Minnesota Thunder on Sept. 14 in the Western Conference finals. Seattle lost a pair of 1-0 decisions in the total-goals series.
Schmetzer and general manager Adrian Hanauer face the task of re-signing 12 free agents, including the team's co-leading scorers, Gregor and Kyle Smith.
Management hopes that O'Brien, a 27-year-old midfielder under contract with the Sounders through 2005, returns after spending all but three games of the Sounders' season on loan to Boden, a second-division team in Sweden.
"I'm not sure what management is thinking and I'm not sure exactly what Leighton's thinking, but unless something major happens, I don't expect he'd be back in Seattle," Gregor said of O'Brien. "I know he's enjoying himself in Sweden. He enjoys the challenge there.
"Plus, he's playing in the shopkeeper's window by being in Europe. Anyone can see him at any time and that could get him to the next level."
Hanauer says he wants O'Brien, the 2002 A-League MVP with Seattle, and Gregor back for 2004. Hanauer said the only way O'Brien doesn't return to play for the Sounders is if his club gets proper compensation for his rights.
"We've told Leighton and his agent that if a great offer came our way, we'd consider trading his rights," Hanauer said. "But we expect him back for 2004. It wasn't an open-ended ticket. If Boden wants to pay us for the rights for another year, then we'll look at that. But we'll want what it will take to replace a player of Leighton's caliber or a higher-quality player."
Gregor, 27, says he has options immediately with a pro team in Europe — rumored to be Boden, which finishes its season in late October.
Gregor, named to the A-League first team for two years in a row, has dual citizenship in Scotland and U.S., making him attractive to a European club.
"As of right now, I'm not signing back with the Sounders," Gregor said. "I'm out of a contract, and I have some options. I'm not ruling out coming back to Seattle. You never say never.
"I enjoyed playing for the club and the coach, but there's been no talk about bringing me back."
Gregor scored 23 points — as did Smith — in 2003 on seven goals and a team-high nine assists. Technically, Gregor's contract with Seattle expires on Oct. 31.
"I'd love to have Andrew and Leighton back on the same team," Hanauer said.
Defender Danny Jackson, signed before the 2003 season, appears guaranteed to return to the Sounders. Jackson underwent successful knee surgery Sept. 9 to repair meniscus, MCL and ACL damage incurred in practice Aug. 12.
Jackson needs six months to get back to full strength, thus he won't be ready for Major League Soccer camps in January.
"Player for player, our team is as strong as most of the others I've seen," Jackson said. "We just were missing a piece of the puzzle sometimes to finish things off. Without Brian Ching and Leighton, maybe those were the two pieces that push us to the Open Cup finals and definitely to the A-League finals."
Home field undecided
Hanauer said the Sounders are deciding whether to return to Seahawks Stadium for home games in 2004, but are considering returning to Memorial Stadium or moving to a renovated Fort Dent Park soccer-only stadium in Tukwila.
"The front-runner right now is Seahawks Stadium," Hanauer said. "We are going to try to make a decision in the next month. We want to have looked everywhere before we make a decision."
Hanauer admits 67,000-seat Seahawks Stadium is a great place to play but that it has a less-intimate setting and high rent.
"It's too expensive for us," Hanauer said. "We're paying for much more stadium than we need. We believe if we did a deal with someone else that it would slash 80 percent off our rent cost."
The sticking point at Fort Dent is seating. The renovation calls for 2,500 seats, but the Sounders need closer to 5,000 or 6,000 to justify the move.
"It would have to be expanded and we're seeing if that's possible," Hanauer said.
• In their first full season of home games at Seahawks Stadium, the Sounders averaged 3,452 fans.
The team averaged 2,583 fans for home games at Memorial Stadium in 2002. The 2002 average excludes the 25,515 fans that attended the first sporting event in Seahawks Stadium — a 4-1 Sounders win over Vancouver — on July 28, 2002.
• Hanauer said he expects the Sounders' financial losses to decrease once the final numbers are tabulated.
He expects this year's losses to be in the neighborhood of $400,000, as opposed to $600,000 in 2002.
Increased ticket sales and youth-camp revenues were the primary reasons for losing less money in 2003, Hanauer said. "The goal is to drop that to the $200,000 range in 2004," he said. "We are trying to get our expenses under control."