By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
It’s fair to say that the Sounders are one of the most despised team in MLS. But strip away the fans, Alonso’s crunching tackles, the cheeky Dempsey smirk, the league moves that “just so happen” to coincide with things going the Sounders way (as *if* by magic!) and what do you have?
The answer is simple: a team that makes smart business decisions and continually puts their organization in the best possible position to consistently win games.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.
2015 Season in Review
The Sounders did a lot of great things in preparation for the 2015 season and perhaps nothing more paramount in leading up to a single season than hiring Garth Lagerway into their front office. Lagerwey didn’t have any true influence upon the year until the mid-season, but his injection to the organization after his past history of dealings with Real Salt Lake provide the Sounders with yet another top of the line talent evaluator.
The season itself, and falling to FC Dallas in the second leg of the second round of the playoffs, was a bit of a tough pill to swallow. Tougher still was watching their rivals to the south take home their first MLS Cup, as that trophy continues to evade the Rave Green despite the talent they collect.
Many who look back upon the Sounders' history of talent and see their lack of MLS Cups see an indictment of the training staff, coaches and even the front office. In 2015 for those folks see probably just another example. I think it’s important to remember the small and most minuscule mistakes that can take hold as "the narrative" in a two-legged elimination playoff.
The playoffs are oftentimes roulette, a game of chance and while most supporters can be hard on their club with lofty annual expectations it was the league's best team the New York Red Bulls that had the best Cup odds at a mere 33 percent with Columbus a distant second trailing with 13 percent. The Sounders have seen favor in playoff situations over six seasons but even the most favorable odds are hardly a true advantage or pathway to hardware.
The season started with a powerhouse boom. Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins lit up the league, they had a defense that was strong, and a midfield, despite missing its key disruptor and creator, that was superb. But every team takes on injuries, and with depth being such an issue of contention among MLS clubs, Seattle had it no better or worse than most clubs.
Halfway through the season the injury bug dealt harshly as Alonso saw a career low of 22 matches, Chad Marshall, Leo Gonzalez and Brad Evans leaving the coaching staff to piecemeal the back line. Gonzalo Pineda and Obafemi Martins both experienced multiple rounds of injuries and adding insult to injury Clint Dempsey was suspended for his shenanigans during the US Open Cup and then never recovered from his time with the US national team and the failed Gold Cup run. Marco Pappa had off the field troubles that clipped much of his time in the second half of the season. Even head coach Sigi Schmid had health issues that sidelined him multiple games.
The issues and dramatic drop off prompted the team to go out and spend their off-season money on three huge additions at mid-season for a run at an MLS Cup. Unfortunately, Nelson Valdes, Andreas Ivanschitz and Román Torres brought little relief. Torres suffered a season ending ACL injury four matches in that will delay his 2016 start--more on that in a couple of paragraphs. As for Ivanschitz and Valdes, each had moments and flashes of excitement with their new club. But as with most new transferees to MLS, they both took time to acclimate to their new environment.
In the end, the injuries and assorted depth issues did the team in. If I were to be someone that believed in curses, I would think the Sounders are an organization that had one come October and November. Whether it’s been Houston, Real Salt Lake, Portland, LA Galaxy or FC Dallas. It’s consistently a new year and a new monkey that grabs the back of Seattle and refuses to let go.
Looking at their past playoff history it’s an assortment of craziness. They were shut out despite an onslaught of attempts against perhaps the greatest MLS keeper of all-time in Nick Rimando. There was the sundering of team chemistry on the road against their bitter rivals in Portland. The low leverage line drive from a Juninho, who rarely scores, sneaking by a diving Stefen Frei which sent LA to MLS Cup on away goals. Now adding to that list a poor shot attempt by that indirectly created an unimaginable goal forcing the game to extra time and then penalty kicks.
Decision making matters and performance does too.
The truth is that while they’ve seen their share of bad luck it’s not just about luck. It takes more than just luck to get to the MLS Cup and while you can point to crazy happenings, like the shootout in Portland, the reality is that to win them they’ve had to play well too.
The Sounders have gone through strings of not playing up to their potential in the playoffs and combine that with bad luck it’s been a receipt for frustration, self pity and a bit of humble pie.
Goalkeeper and Defense
The team enters in with one of the best team defenses in MLS. Frei, coupled with Marshall and Tyrone Mears gives the team a solid core. Brad Evans is very good also, but the hold over question from last year still remains: will he be an above average defender or just be a bunch of moments and flashes?
Adding to the experienced ensemble is Joevin Jones, who they acquired from the Chicago Fire for a first round pick. A minimal cost for an international CONCACAF left back that will end up starting full time for the Sounders and will serve as replacement for Gonzalez who returned to Costa Rica after five magnificent and underrated seasons with the Sounders.
Back to Roman Torres, the dude is a physical beast and someone that comes with Copa Libertadores experience. A well rounded defensive player that at 29 is in the prime of his career and is a starter for any MLS Club. When healthy he’ll likely pair a long side Marshall, though I expect that there will plenty of rotation between them and Evans. The key will be about sustaining health and longevity for the season while putting forth a quality back line.
The question that surrounds the midfield like a fog or ominous cloud formation is the health and return to prominence of Ozzie Alonso. While he’s been solid the last two years, he’s perhaps lost a bit with the health issues and age.
Being paired with the Honey Hadger is Erik Friberg on his second tour of duty in the Emerald City, arriving early in the summer transfer window last season. A fan favorite, the Swede is a dynamic passer ranking seventh in among central midfielders in through balls per 90 minutes. Despite the departure of Obafemi Martins I would expect his talent set to still come in handy with Jordan Morris and his ability to get behind defenses.
Ivanschitz will undoubtedly be another key fixture out of the midfield. His sniper-like serving of dead balls from wide positions is a surefire skill intended to vault the Sounders into one of the most dangerous set piece teams in MLS.
Last season in La Liga (you know, the one Messi plays in) Ivanchitz averaged nearly a key pass on crosses per 90 minutes, good for seventh among midfield peers. He was also ninth in key passes via free kicks per 90 minutes.
The real question is how much defense can this group muster and how much can they deter opponents that thrive in dictating possession? If Ozzie losses another step, can Ivanschitz and Friberg compensate? It’s a question to stash away for the mid-season and come back to for certain.
Instead of talking about wingers and then going with wide-forwards, I’m going to throw it all here because based upon the preseason matches I’ve seen and the CCL match last week, I think there is going to be a lot of blending and natural ebb and flow among Morris, Dempsey and Valdes.
Dempsey and Valdes will constantly be swapping positions. Which, in my opinion, is a great thing. I don’t think Dempsey is a good defensive player and I tend to believe that his best position is up top behind the striker where he can operate a bit further from goal and be allowed to be creative. He is also given the opportunity to either provide to his teammates or discover high leverage opportunities through bumbling defenses around the goal.
Valdes is an interesting case and while I’m not sure what to think about him from an attacking perspective, I do know that he’s by far one of the best defensive forwards in the league if not the best. He only logged 216 minutes at forward according to Opta, but it was still good for seventh in tackles, 28th in passes blocked and 10th in interceptions. The guy just works so hard.
Lastly, Jordan Morris.
Most people are familiar with seeing him up top for the USA in the striker position, and he’s performed well there to a point. But the reality is for the foreseeable future he’s a winger with the Sounders, slotting in wide-right. However, much like Dempsey, Morris will likely be interchangeable with Valdes swapping positions and trying to mix up defensive coverages using his physical attributes to his advantage.
While Obafemi Martins' move sucked for many reasons, I’ll agree that it opened up a bit more flexibility in the starting roster. Whereas you were likely benching Ivanschitz, Valdes or Morris in leiu of one the most potent scoring duos in the league, Oba helps get their best talent on the field. That said, the drop off in talent on the bench because of the shift into the starting line-up is ugly and a bit revealing of what is on Lagerwey’s “to-do” list this season.
Lord knows that I have a love/hate relationship with Sigi Schmid...and while it’s probably not to the degree of most fans, I think what bothers me most is his propensity to play overtly defensive in spite of the dominating attacking talent at his disposal.
I would go so far as to say that this conservative nature may be changing this season. He’s hinted, and gone so far as to rack and stack a 4-3-3 line-up in an aggressive move that we’ve not really previously seen in his tenure in Seattle.
He’s a player's coach and he entrusts a lot to Evans, Alonso and Dempsey to see that his vision is fully realized by others and executed out on the pitch. I would expect more of the same as things go forward and if this team doesn’t perform well, I’d expect the club to shift back towards some sort of 4-4-2 that has been Sigi’s bread and butter the last few seasons.
If I was going to make one grand claim it would be that Schmid does not return for the 2017 season. Win or bust. I think 2017 will have a new Sounders coach at it’s helm.
It’s easy to say that the Sounders are going to make the playoffs because... outside of, well, a lot of random stupid things happening, I can’t imagine anyone not seeing Seattle in the postseason. They will probably sit around the top three. Which kind of seems like a boring prediction but after that first half against Club America and their propensity for finding the right pieces for their system, it’s hard to believe they’d miss the playoffs.