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Originally published Friday, April 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Klaas right at home with Sounders

C.J. Klaas could have jumped at the chance to pursue a big-time soccer career. Instead, he stayed the course for more courses at the University...

Special to The Seattle Times

C.J. Klaas could have jumped at the chance to pursue a big-time soccer career. Instead, he stayed the course for more courses at the University of Washington.

The speedy midfielder chose to finish his economics degree after concluding an outstanding career at UW and begin married life with the former Blair Ruport. He spurned Major League Soccer after the San Jose Earthquakes selected him in the third round of the 2005 draft with the 32nd pick overall.

The beneficiaries are the Seattle Sounders.

"He's a bright, young talent and I'm not sure if we'll have him around very long, but it's nice to have C.J. here now," said Sounders fourth-year coach Brian Schmetzer, who could have seven rookies on the roster. "He's definitely headed to MLS."

With the loss of central midfielder Andrew Gregor to a broken right foot in Monday's final exhibition match, the Sounders need the 21-year-old Klaas to make a splash.

Expect the 5-foot-7, 175-pound midfielder to have a big impact. The low-key Klaas, who played for the Under-15, -16, -18 and -20 U.S. national teams, will need to quickly grow into a leadership role at a leadership position.

"He has a lot of experience with the national teams, playing at higher levels," said Sounders midfielder Billy Sleeth, a former Husky with MLS experience. "He's done well so far in training and exhibitions.

"... He's got a lot of talent. I think him being smaller helps him, because his lower center of gravity lets him accelerate quicker than bigger guys. Plus, he can really jump."

Klaas, who started all 69 matches he played at UW, capped his four-year career as the Huskies' first back-to-back first-team All-American. He was also the first player to earn All-Pac-10 honors for four years and the conference's Co-Player of the Year as a senior.

Key questions

Five questions the Sounders need to answer for a successful season:

1. Can the Sounders overcome season-ending preseason injuries to key players D Danny Jackson and F Craig Tomlinson and the eight-week loss of MF Andrew Gregor?

2. With a group that could include as many as seven rookies, can Seattle reach the playoffs for the 11th time in 12 seasons since resurrecting the franchise in 1994?

3. Can rookie C.J. Klaas carry a big leadership role at central midfield?

4. Can Welton match or eclipse the 12 goals he had in his first season with the Sounders?

5. How will the comings and goings of Roger Levesque, on loan for a third year from the San Jose Earthquakes of the MLS, affect the team's continuity?

Size has never stopped Klaas.

"I think people were surprised that someone my size, as small as I am, could still have an impact on the game like I did," he said. "It's not something a lot of people have seen."

He recently married Ruport, a former Huskies women's soccer player and 2004 UW graduate, and continues to attend classes.

"It wasn't an easy decision, because MLS is obviously a step up," Klaas said. "It wasn't easy for me and my wife, but I wanted my education to fall back on.

"I do want to play at the next level."

Klaas, who was home-schooled by his mother in Cherry Valley, Ill., before his freshman year in high school, learned to value education and decided to finish college while testing the pro waters with the Sounders.

Being home-schooled didn't make Klaas a homebody. He has visited more than 20 countries, mainly through soccer. He spent part of his sophomore year in high school training in Holland and part of his senior year practicing in Portugal.

His home-schooling likely accelerated his learning curve. Klaas essentially advanced from sixth to eighth grade in one summer and graduated from high school at age 17.

What he didn't learn at home from his mother, Klaas learned playing soccer with his siblings. Kevin, 25, played at Judson College, an NAIA school in Elgin, Ill., and Katie, 23, suited up for Northern Illinois.

"I learned the most when playing with them because, male and female alike, they would beat up on me," C.J. Klaas said.

Klaas and the other Sounders rookies will need to mature quickly this season. Seattle lost 12 players to retirement and free agency from a team that lost 2-0 to the Montreal Impact in the A-League championship and finished 18-13-5 last season. "With [Gregor] out, it forces younger players like myself to step up," said Klaas, who signed a one-year contract that includes a club option for 2006. "Probably my biggest challenge is to juggle school and soccer, because school might come second sometimes."

Sleeth and the four other UW graduates on the roster have made Klaas feel welcome to the Sounders from the start.

"That made the transition easier, having a bunch of UW grads on the team," Klaas said. "I knew about half the team already, because I'd played with a lot of them at one time or another."

Now, they're again reunited in Seattle. At least for now.

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