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After 1st title, Sounders prepare for encore performance

FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2016, file photo, Seattle Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, front left, hoists soccer's MLS Cup with teammates after defeating Toronto FC in the playoff game. Launched with 10 teams in 1996, MLS has plans to expand to 28 teams in coming years. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

SEATTLE (AP) — It took eight seasons for the Seattle Sounders to finally reach this point.

They had done everything right as the most successful expansion franchise to join Major League Soccer, except win an MLS Cup title. The Sounders finally broke through and added the long-sought gold star to their resume as league champs during a season in which that outcome seemed the most unlikely.

Along with the title came a new chapter for the Sounders, beginning Saturday against Houston. They're no longer seeking that missing piece. Now, it's the encore they're after.

"We have to work smarter," coach Brian Schmetzer said. "That's the big message. We have to work smarter."

Seattle would like to get its title defense off to a strong start, especially with five of its first seven games on the road but what happens in the first few weeks can be somewhat insignificant. As Seattle proved a year ago when it floundered near the bottom of the standings in July before a stunning turnaround, even the most dismal of starts can be overcome.

There was hardly any offseason for Seattle to enjoy its title and that could be among the bigger issues for the Sounders. Six weeks after winning in frigid Toronto, the Sounders opened training camp. For a handful of players that were part of the U.S. national team camp in January, the offseason was a matter of a week.

"If you're going to win MLS Cup you'll gladly take the short offseason," defender Chad Marshall said.

Seattle is looking to learn from the mistakes of others. General manager Garth Lagerwey and his staff reached out to rival Portland and Columbus — the finalists from the 2015 season — to find out what changes they would have made to make the follow up to their championship game runs more successful. Both missed the playoffs in 2016.

The answer was clear. Manage your players early, so they don't burn out late. And as Seattle showed a year ago, the close is far more important than the beginning.

"We did some homework and we talked to those guys and said, 'Hey, what do you guys think happened?' And some of the feedback was it was too short and it really wasn't enough time to rest and recover," Lagerwey said. "That was the general gist of the conversation and I think it behooves us to try and learn from teams ... who we respect and try to avoid that fate this year."

Along with creating a plan to manage its players early, Seattle's offseason priority was getting younger. Veterans Andreas Ivanschitz, Nelson Valdez, Tyrone Mears and Erik Friberg bid adieu after being key pieces of the title run. In their place, Seattle nabbed Will Bruin from Houston, Harry Shipp from Montreal and Swedish midfielder Gustav Svensson.

Of course, no change from a year ago could be more important for Seattle than the return of forward Clint Dempsey, who missed the title run due to a heart issue and appears ready to go.

Here are other things to watch for this season:

ROOKIE NO MORE: Jordan Morris' rookie season began with huge expectations, followed by a disappointing start, finding a groove midway through and ultimately being a key component in the championship run. Morris should benefit from the return of Dempsey and playing a full season with midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, whose arrival opened up the entire offensive attack.

LOOSE DEUCE: Dempsey's return instantly boosts Seattle's attack, assuming he's healthy enough to play out the full season. Dempsey hasn't played a competitive match since August after being sidelined by a heart issue. He played 80 minutes in Seattle's final preseason game, but like many of its veterans the Sounders are gearing Dempsey for the long haul.

FREI GUY: Stefan Frei's game-saving save in the final against Toronto made him an instant celebrity in Seattle. It also helped get him an opportunity with the U.S. national team during its January camp, where he was slowed by injury. Frei is back to full health just in time for the season opener and will again be counted upon to be the anchor at the back of Seattle's defense.

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