He may not be glamorous, but Tiffert should improve Seattle

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Sigi Schmid talked up Andy Rose every chance he could. Two weeks ago, the Sounders’ head coach claimed the first year midfielder out of UCLA should get consideration for Rookie of the Year, something that makes today’s signing just a little bit curious. Why would Seattle feel the need to augment midfield if they had a Rookie of the Year-candidate paired with all-star Osvaldo Alonso?

It’s a trick question (Rose isn’t a Rookie of the Year candidate), but the point remains the same: Seattle didn’t need to sign former Kaiserslautern midfielder Christian Tiffert as a designated player. In fact, at first blush the signing seems a stretch, the East German-born Tiffert is not exactly profiling as the type of player that would spur a three-DP team to trade one of its big ticket items. A decent Bundesliga midfielder who posted one assist for Germany’s last place team doesn’t usually merit a trip to the bank. Playing in the 2. Bundesliga as recently as 2009-10 and having scored only 19 goals in 12 professional seasons, Tiffert’s probably not German for “scarce commodity.”

But once he’s signed, the designated player debate ends. The more interesting discussion centers around Tiffert’s on-field effects, which brings us back to Rose and (somebody who should have been mentioned earlier) Brad Evans. Both incumbent Sounders are solid players, but neither can really be thought of as progressive players. In this context, I use progressive to mean a player who, after receiving the ball, is going to make a decision that’s likely to significantly improve their team’s chances of scoring a goal.

Rose and Evans are reliable options to occupy the space in front of Alonso, but if you’re looking for a guy to make that final pass – to read Eddie Johnson’s movements and know to thread that pass to beat defenders – they’re not it. They occupy space, don’t make mistakes – they’re fine. But they’re also part of the reason Fredy Montero is so important to the Sounders. He’s a forward who drops into a high midfield position to serve as Seattle’s playmaker. When Montero isn’t in the team, Mauro Rosales moves into the middle, dropping into spaces you rarely see Rose or Evans venture.

Tiffert is not a number 10, but he is somebody who can make good, progressive decisions on the ball. Slotted in for Rose or Evans, he immediately improves the team, and with Álvaro Fernández (traded to Chicago to make room for Tiffert) getting no more playing time than Alex Caskey, Seattle’s only sacrifice was a high-priced player who was fighting for playing time.

It’s a shame Fernández fits that label three years into his MLS career. For whatever reason, he never worked in Seattle, even during a 2011 season which saw him register nine goals. During that run, there was a feeling he was finally “getting it” – adjusting to Sigi Schmid’s vision for him. This season, however, he went near-half the season without scoring. Schmid commended recent improvement that saw “Flaco” score twice, but his place in the pecking order was unchanged. Fernández was the third of three designated players – the man who had to move if Seattle was going to bring in another big ticket item. The second designated player to move from Seattle to Chicago (following the footsteps of Freddie Ljundberg), Fernández still has the talent to be an MLS star.

As for the man taking his slot, Tiffert’s two seasons since returning to the Bundesliga leave a lot open to interpretation. He registered 17 assists in 2010-11, leading the league. Last year, his stats fell off a cliff. People who want this signing to work will look at 2010-11. Critics will dwell on last season.

Beyond the numbers, Tiffert’s a solid player who can be trusted to make good decisions on the ball. That includes taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes, something neither Rose nor Evans could so. Will Tiffert create those mistakes? Unless he finds another level in MLS, probably not. But if Johnson continues his run of form and Montero is liberated by a more effective central midfield, Tiffert will improve Seattle.

At 30 years old and without a senior national team appearance, Tiffert’s probably not the player people envision when they think designated player. But that’s done. Until another transfer window opens, what matters is how Tiffert fits into Sigi Schmid’s team. On that front, there’s a lot for Seattle fans to like about this deal.