By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
The Seattle Sounders have been to eight straight playoffs, two straight MLS Cups. They even won one of those cups, despite (roughly) accruing a combined 0.5 expected goals between BOTH matches. 2018 projects to be another successful season for a team with talent from stem to sturn, but with back to back off-seasons of only six weeks for a team whose first choice eleven run north of the MLS age median, there is plenty of inherited risk.
2017 in review
In 2017 the Sounders started the the season on a Championship hangover. Seattle was on the outside of the playoffs and sitting behind even the terrible LA Galaxy on July 1st. But during the last 18 games the Rave Green only lost two, taking 34 of 54 available points and launching the organization into second place in the Western Conference and their eightth straight another playoff appearance.
The successful run happened in spite of losing major pieces to their 2016 MLS Cup run due to injury. Osvaldo Alonso was out for most of the last two months and didn't even play in MLS Cup. Jordan Morris had perpetual hamstring issues that sidelined him for almost half the season. Brad Evans, who was projected to be the starting right back, didn't even reach 500 minutes.
But off-season signings such as Gustav Svensson, Harry Shipp and Will Bruin all ended up being impactful signings and kept things afloat while the team struggled. These reinforcements, coupled with the exceptional growth of Christian Roldan and the promotion of S2 fullback Nouhou Tolo, gave the first team quality depth.
Svensson showed his value early covering right back for Evans, then showed off his versatility when Alonso went down, and even filled in occasionally for Roman Torres and Chad Marshall as the season wore on. He did everything asked of him and with great effectiveness. He ended with a top-20 xPassing score (63.5) and second in team defensive action percentage (14%), trailing only Roldan (15%).
Nouhou’s development allowed head coach Brian Schmetzer to deploy the attacking fullback further up the field at winger (a position Jones frequently occupies for Trinidad and Tobago) with the departure of Alvaro Fernandez. This also helped the Sounders stretch the field, giving them a different dynamic on the left side despite Morris’ continued unavailability.
The one thing that became quickly obvious was the Sounders need for help at right back. Oneil Fisher, Jordy Delem and Svensson all had decent showings, but none were anything above average at the position. It wasn’t until the team signed dutch full back Kelvin Leerdam in midseason that the position stabilized.
Even with right back solved and the additional attacking options that came with Joevin Jones moving forward, Garth Lagerway didn't sit still. The team managed to add Victor Rodriguez, a former La Masia graduate and a starter with Sporting de Gijón in La Liga, to add depth with the departure of Flaco. The addition of Leerdam, Rodriguez and the individual growth of their young core provided important quality at a crucial stage late in the season. The Sounders attack grew more devastating as the season progressed, and by season's end led MLS in expected goals (52.87).
The playoffs yielded further positive results. They continued their deadly attacking by beating rival Vancouver two goals to nil, then dismantling the Dynamo by five goals. They tallied a combined 4.8 expected goal,s all the while preserving a clean sheet.
It was an impressive run of four games, and rarely did the Sounders' second consecutive MLS Cup birth look in jeopardy. They had the look of a spoiler about them and their form suggested a much better show was in store in Toronto for the second time around.
Coming into MLS Cup there were plenty of reasons to think that the Sounders were a different and a better team than the iteration that visited Toronto in 2016. Yet somehow the Sounders put up another weak attacking show. Not only that, but they were even worse on defending. Stefen Frei kept the Sounders in the game by stopping six shots in the first half alone, but Toronto broke through in the second half with goals by Jozy Altidore and Victor Vasquez.
Another less than stellar MLS Cup appearance is frustrating for both the Sounders organization and their fans but it doesn't take away from the season that they had. One that despite a stumble out of the gate ended on a very strong note and with a roster that can go toe-to-toe with just about any team on any day.
This off-season has been rather boring for Seattle. But that’s probably a good thing. There were not a lot of reasons to make changes. The team lost Joevin Jones following MLS Cup, but traded with Columbus for MLS veteran Waylon Francis. They also signed speedy Norweigen winger Mangus Wollf Eikrem from Malmö FF, the first place club of the Allsvenskan in Sweden.
It’s not enough that Magnus Wolff Eikrem has an awesome name. Not just because it has “Wolff” but also the fact that it’s “Wolff” spelled two “ff”’s. But more importantly he had important starts and appearances with Malmö in each of their recent Champions League runs (2015 and 2017).
According to Transfermarkt, he missed a considerable amount of time last year due to a foot injury, and from that I’m inferring that he lost a bit of the organizational confidence in his ability to start. He may not immediately be inserted in the Sounders starting line-up but he’ll be an incredibly valuable spare part for Brian Schmetzer.
Waylon Fancis may regularly start, but will push 20-year old Tolo Nouhou for minutes at fullback this year. Still, his speed in the attack could help him play above his talent level in Seattle, much as it did in Columbus, with how they operate tactically with fast overlapping fullbacks.
Alex Roldan is of course the young brother of Cristian and someone that is talented in his own right. A leader during his time at the University of Seattle, he could be a valuable depth piece even in his first year.
Handwalla Bwana is yet another in a long line of heralded young forwards from Seattle’s youth development program. Sean Okoli, Darwin Jones, Victor Mansary, Jordan Morris and Seyi Adekoya. Unfortunately for the Sounders, Morris is the only one to have impressed during their time in Seattle so far, though the jury is still out on Adekoya. Bwana may be the most talented of the bunch, and at 18 the homegrown still has years to grow in to the hype. He also has a phenomenal back story.
There isn’t much that you probably don’t already know concerning the Sounders starting XI at this stage. Stefen Frei is one of the league's best keepers. Roman Torres and Chad Marshall may be one of the league’s oldest defensive duos, but they’re still one of the best pairings in MLS.
The full backs - Leerdam on the right and Nouhou on the left - have the potential to be very special, though their attacking numbers don’t look spectacular and there comes the expectation that with a full season they’ll be more efficient.
Osvaldo Alonso and Gustav Svensson will likely take turns being the rock against which waves of attacks break. Both are hard, ball winning talents who maintain a soft touch. They also are capable of getting forward and helping create in the final third.
Cristian Roldan has grown in each of his last three seasons, and at this stage is considered one of the top domestic midfielders in the league. Has he plateaued or will he continue, at age 22, to grow? Even if Roldan doesn't take another step forward, he’s a game changing talent. Whether it’s him winning the ball (he had highest percentage of the Sounders defensive actions), creating chances, or supplying opportunities others, he’s already extremely good.
The Sounders have a lot of winger options. Eikrem, Rodriguez, and Nicolas Lodeiro will most frequently line-up out wide, but Lamar Neagle and the young and interesting homegrown Henry Wingo will also contribute there. All five will get minutes, but it’s Lodeiro who is the most important of the bunch.
I’ve spent a lot of words on twitter (see right) trying to communicate how good Lodeiro is, so I won’t waste a ton here. But I know if he’s not The Best Player in Major League Soccer he’s in the very top echelon, and by himself he makes the Sounders an MLS Cup contending team.
But Seattle isn't just about winning one trophy, it’s about the Supporters' Shield. That run depends greatly upon Clint Dempsey's his health and form. In 2017 we saw some of his numbers, such as interceptions and expected passing, decrease in a big way. But we also saw his tackles and duel success rate as well as team defensive action% increase. He also posted his highest non-PK/FK expected goal numbers since his inaugural year with the Sounders in 2014. The soon to be 35 year old signed a one year extension with the Sounders in November, and it’s been speculated that this might be his last run.
Lastly, the striker position was going to be a battle between Jordan Morris and Will Bruin, and the team even experimented with the 4-4-2 diamond in preseason as a way to get both in the lineup.
Unfortunately, Morris he tore his ACL in El Salvador in the Sounders' opening match in Champions League. There are rumors that this could spark the Sounders into signing more striker depth, but for the time being Bruin with be left with the responsibilities up top.
One specific player that won't see much first team time but should get around 500 minutes this season is Zach Mathers. The central attacking midfielder managed to create over 100 shots last year in USL, taking 53 for himself and creating 56 for his teammates. He also scored 11 goals and provided four assists. At 23, there is still some possible projection of growth and he’s likely just depth, but he’s interesting player to watch to see if he’ll ever figure things out at the MLS level.
The Sounders have a lot of good pieces, and their current roster is constructed with a nice balance of veterans and promising youth. If everything goes in their favor, there aren't many reasons why the Sounders can't go to a third straight MLS Cup final.
The roster may not have added much, but with the high level of talent available, the team didn't need much added. Lagerway is positioned well with both with cap space and allocation resources to make moves as needed.
But the roster still has it’s own set of issues, mostly around depth in the defense, central midfield, and up top. It’s not hard to envision a few things going wrong with this team, which ends with them getting bounced quickly in the early stages of the playoffs.
I think just about every MLS team is a “worst case scenario” away from not being a playoff team, but Seattle has probably one of the highest floors in the West. Unless they lose Lodeiro, the Sounders will almost certainly make the playoffs. How far they go depends on the strength of their defense and their continued ability to create an explosive attack.