Plenty of questions lingered over Seattle Sounders FC leading up to the club's 2012 campaign, particularly in the defensive backfield.
After all, the face of the franchise - South Sound native Kasey Keller - was gone, at least on the pitch. He called it a career last season after comprising an all-world résumé, including defending stellar in goal and being the Sounders' vocal leader during its inaugural Major League Soccer years. Now, he's lending that voice to the team's play-by-play.
Also lost were backs James Riley and Tyson Wahl to the 2011 MLS Expansion Draft.
In terms of Seattle's backfield, the club might not have had to clean house, but it definitely dusted some rugs. Two staunch defenders who helped establish Seattle's idenitity were gone in Keller and Riley.
The good news? This team hasn't wilted when challenged in its own box this young season. Through its first two matches - a 3-1 win against Toronto and Friday's 2-0 result against Houston - the Sounders have played physical. They're winning their share of 50-50 balls.
Austrian-born keeper Michael Gspurning has played big in goal, literally. On Friday, for example, he used all of his 6-foot-5 frame and a giant paw to deflect a well-placed strike from a Dynamo player in the 17th minute over the crossbar, en route to collecting the team's first clean sheet of the campaign. Despite a steady offensive attack from Houston, Gspurning didn't let anything get past him.
Replicating what Keller did in terms of his on-field presence is nearly impossible. However, Gspurning's inspiring play could quickly turn him into a fan favorite.
"I thought Michael had a very good game tonight,” Coach Sigi Schmid told Matt Gaschke of soundersfc.com after Friday's win. “He came out and did well on a couple of crosses, ones he punched out and collected. I thought it was a good game tonight for Michael’s confidence and also for the fans to see his quality tonight.”
The back line — a mix of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Adam Johansson, Jeff Parke, Patrick Ianni, Leo Gonzalez, Zach Scott and Marc Burch — also gets credit, as it has bodied up on opponents, especially on those crosses. Defenders have looked frustrated at times.
One of the new faces on the line - Johansson - played well in his MLS debut against Toronto FC. However, a hamstring injury meant Schmid had to plug in Zach Scott against Houston. Different face, better result against a stronger offense.
There's no telling whether the Sounders' first two matches will be indicative of its play the rest of the season. Injuries will happen. Gspurning will have a bad game. The back line will break.
But if this defense - which includes Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans dropping back from the midfield to help - can sustain the level of physicality and play it has shown in the first two games, then Sounders FC could see the type of success it enjoyed the past few years.
If not better.
(RAVE GREEN SCENE is Patch's new blog on the happenings of the Seattle Sounders FC. Editor Brent Champaco is a Sounders season-ticket holder and was a starting right midfielder for his youth team until he retired after eighth grade. He has a false sense of authority on the team's happenings, but he does go to every game. Well, most games. Feel free to call him on his perpetual b.s. anytime)