By Ian Lamberson (@ahandleforian)
I suppose that by Seattle’s lofty standards you could consider last season to be a bit of a disappointment. For the first time in three years, they weren’t contesting the MLS Cup final, having been knocked from the competition in heartbreaking fashion by Portland on penalties after 120 minutes of what can very reasonably be called the most exciting playoff match in team history. So how do you bounce back? Is there actually anything to bounce back from? Why don’t teams have long-sleeved jersey options all of a sudden? What’s actually going on with Adidas anyway? If the Seattle Sounders were a character in Game of Thrones which one would they be? We shall endeavor to answer some of these questions within.
Seattle’s 2018 Season
I’m starting to feel as though I can just copy paste this twice a year now. Seattle started slow. They were bad. There was no way they were coming back from this. They signed a great player. They got good, set a league record for consecutive wins and finished second in the West. One of the things we discussed at the end of last season was how for as impressive as Seattle’s win streak was, the underlying numbers didn’t show much in the way of dominance.
So here’s some trenchant sober analysis, it turns out you’re going to do better if you score more goals, which Seattle figured out how to just before the midpoint of the season. Now whether this change was the result throwing money at the problem in the form of Raul Ruidiaz or proof that despite careful planning and tactical analysis the sport is a cruel, unfeeling, and random game is unclear. Ultimately it is up to each of us to decide which existential crisis we prefer. The main takeaway from last season for Sounders fans should be that Ruidiaz is really good and having a full season of him could help ward off the early season lethargy that has plagued them for the last few seasons.
The only other remarkable news from last season was that it was once again time for the club to promote its unique program whereby every four years or so Seattle fans get the opportunity to potentially kneecap their own franchise by voting out a sitting General Manager.
Seattle managed to avoid such a blunder this time around as not enough people felt passionately enough about firing one of the most highly regarded GMs in the league because reasons to even reach a quorum, but there’s always next time.
Onwards to 2019.
Roster Changes (from mlssoccer.com)
D - Jonathan Campbell (trade from Chicago)
GK - Trey Muse (Homegrown)
Well. Not a lot to say here. Jonathan Campbell is probably a good pick up, particularly if Roman Torres is moved. Trey Muse is a good homegrown signing. Ok. I guess that wraps up the transfer business thus far.
GK - Calle Brown (option declined)
D - Tony Alfaro (option declined)
M - Lamar Neagle (option declined)
F - Felix Chenkam (option declined)
M - Osvaldo Alonso (out of contract)
M - Aaron Kovar (out of contract)
D - Waylon Francis (traded to Columbus)
So the big story here is obviously Osvaldo Alonso, but let’s dispense with these less interesting moves first. I didn’t even know Calle Brown was on the team. Tony Alfaro’s writing was on the wall very early into last season and this comes as no surprise. Lamar Neagle is once again gone but I have no doubt he will find a way back before the end of the season as he does not stay away for long. Felix Chenkham was just emergency depth that was never used. Aaron Kovar spent last season on loan at LAFC, was used sparingly, and has decided to retire. Waylon Francis was not terribly good in any of his appearances for Seattle and will likely be glad to return home to Columbus.
Now Ozzie. This one stings a bit for Seattle fans. It is not an exaggeration whatsoever to say that Osvaldo Alonso is the most important player in Seattle’s MLS history. He was the last remaining vestige of Seattle’s original MLS team and with him goes an era marked by a consistent success matched by few teams in MLS history. It can be argued that Alonso was slowing down a bit and his spotty injury record the last few seasons more or less made his wage demands a non-starter, but even last season Alonso showed that at his best he’s still a top tier MLS player. Minnesota is a good fit for him at this stage of his career, and while his departure has been whispered sotto voce for the last few offseasons, the band-aid is off and the club can go about finding a permanent replacement for the Cuban.
Let’s take a look at what Seattle have going on in 2019.
(Spoilers) Stefan Frei will start every game that he is healthy and be one of the best goalkeepers in the league. Seattle fans have been blessed with good goalkeepers for their entire MLS run, but Frei still manages to stand out from the rest. Losing Goalkeeper of the Year to Zack Steffen last season was, and I am in no way being hyperbolic here, a heinous travesty for which there should be a full investigation and accountability. Bryan Meredith, who was a capable replacement on the rare occasion Frei was unavailable, will once again deputize, while new signing Trey Muse will begin his apprenticeship under the two experienced keepers.
|Pass Score||Cross Accuracy|
There seems to be a bit of a competition going between Nouhou Tolo and Bradley Smith for the starting left back position. Smith’s loan situation is still a little bit murky to those of us on the outside, as his loan expires in June. This would make starting him over a healthy Nouhou a questionable choice. There could be discussions going on behind the scenes that would lead Seattle to believe there is a good chance they could get a loan extension or make the move permanent. I have no idea either way but that might explain why he seems to be the preferred choice so far in preseason. There is, of course, another possible explanation for this. Nouhou was a surprising inclusion on Opta’s MLS Best XI last year, and suddenly he went from a relatively unknown player on the global stage to being linked with clubs in Europe. Nouhou understandably welcomed the attention and spent some time on social media flirting with Ligue 1 teams. While you can’t blame the man for wanting some upward mobility for his career, you also can’t blame Seattle if they got pretty annoyed by it. While neither one is a tremendous player, Nouhou is younger and still developing. Smith would seem to be a more assured presence on the ball, but statistics actually seem to indicate that (in what is clearly a sample size way too small to make any reasonable judgment) Nouhou is a better passer, crosser, and defender. Again though, Smith had just joined the team and played a few matches before picking up an unfortunate season-ending injury, so I might be more willing to take the coaches word for it until we get a longer and better look at him.
Right back is less of a question mark as Kelvin Leerdam will once again be the presumptive starter. Leerdam has been pretty good if unremarkable, and while that sounds very much like damning with faint praise, it’s not the worst thing for an MLS fullback to be. His crossing has been appallingly bad, but he still managed to notch four assists last season. At the moment his only competition is a young and unpolished Jordan McCrary, but that might all change if Seattle signs former SKC and NYCFC right back Saad Abdul-Salaam who has been trialing with the team throughout the preseason.
Chad Marshall and Kim Kee-hee were stellar last season as a partnership. Marshall was the runner-up for Defender of the Year, and Kee-hee was able to unseat Roman Torres from the starting role and never once looked like giving it back. Seattle allowed the second lowest amount of goals in the league last season (36), and while a lot of that credit goes to Stefan Frei, that kind of return isn’t a reason to go messing about with your center back pairings. Seattle did need depth though as Tony Alfaro proved to be less than adequate when called to fill in. Jonathan Campbell was a good pickup and will likely be the third or fourth choice for the spot depending on what happens with Roman Torres. Torres is a physical presence and a capable defender to be sure, but he was sent home during Seattle’s preseason training in Arizona and while we don’t know the EXACT specifics of that situation, it’s been reasonably easy to ascertain it wasn’t because he was being rewarded for being super chill about his role in the team. It would not surprise me to see Torres traded or sold either now or later in the summer with a younger signing coming in to fill out that fourth choice slot.
Boy there are a lot of these. Cristian Roldan was a steady presence out on the right wing last season, and his ability to find ways to contribute there despite being a more natural center mid is just one more testament to this kid’s versatility and talent. He’s not likely to be part of the wing rotation this year with Alonso gone, but it’s nice to know he can do the job in a pinch. His younger brother Alex Roldan is admittedly less bright of a talent, but managed to earn a few starts early last season and has looked somewhat improved during the preseason stretch of matches. Brian Schmetzer seems to like him, and that’s unsurprising considering his strong work rate and effort.
This year though, the starting jobs are likely to fall to Victor Rodriguez and Jordan Morris. Morris is finally back after battling injuries for two seasons, and while the starting striker position was comprehensively filled by Raul Ruidiaz, he may well find a second lease on life out on the wing. His pace is undeniable, and he does possess an explosivity that we saw flashes of in his rookie campaign that could serve him well bursting forward in the wider channels. The only issue with Morris in this type of position is that in the past he has not been exactly super great at passing, crossing, or using his weaker foot. It seems foolish for me to draw any conclusions based on preseason matches, but in Seattle’s last two preseason matches, Morris was one of the best players on the pitch spraying accurate crosses from the right-hand side. If this is to be the new Jordan Morris it would go a long way towards repaying the faith the organization showed in him when they handed him a potentially (albeit loaded with incentives) big contract this offseason.
I honestly can’t tell you if Rodriguez is an amazing player, an average player, or merely a serviceable one. The Spaniard has struggled mightily to get a long consistent run in the side with injuries hampering him at every turn. He has looked brilliant at times, however, and there has to be a reason they’re keeping him around at a pretty big salary hit. If Rodriguez can manage 2000 minutes this season I predict Sounders fans may finally see what all the fuss is about. His xG+xA p96 of 0.46 last season puts him in the comparable range of players like Justin Meram, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, and Aleksander Katai, and sits just below far more costly players like Albert Rusnak and Luciano Acosta.
This part of the depth chart gets even more crowded when you include young players with a ton of potential like Henry Wingo (who has actually also seen some time at right back this preseason), and Handwalla Bwana who would likely have seen a lot more minutes last season were it not for an unfortunate injury.
I’m forgetting somebody.
Oh! Harry Shipp! Harry Shipp is fine! There aren’t a lot of teams that wouldn’t like a Harry Shipp. He’ll rarely be a headline maker but he’s a good and decent midfielder that stays healthy and seems to be content to fill in whichever midfield spot is needed. Given Seattle’s injury history, I’d wager we’ll see plenty of Mr. Shipp this year.
Nicolás Lodeiro will be lining up in the central attacking role per usual. There’s not much to say about this guy that hasn’t already been said by me and many others, but he’s an elite MLS player and what makes Seattle tick. In the final third nobody passes as often as Lodeiro (well Miguel Almiron had ONE more pass than him last year but Almiron is gone), and nobody passes as well in the final third as Lodeiro (his 2018 pass score of 49.4 dwarfs the next highest tally of 33.3). As Lodeiro goes so to go the Sounders. Should Lodeiro need to miss any games, it’s likely that Cristian Roldan or Victor Rodriguez will deputize here.
Speaking of Cristian Roldan. He’s very likely moving back to his deeper-lying role this season where he’ll once again assume more defensive responsibility. The last time we saw him spend considerable time in this position was 2017 when he led the league in tackles. He was also one of the league’s best passers that year with his pass score of 65.5 only superseded by six other players (four of which were center backs). Roldan was given a substantial raise this offseason and while some members of the MLS media seemed taken aback, I can’t think of a young player more deserving. He’s looked more comfortable every season and I wouldn’t expect this season to be anything but a continuation of that progress.
Sitting next to Roldan will be Swedish international Gustav Svensson. Svensson signed with Seattle to little fanfare but has become omnipresent in the team since the beginning. The Swede pairs well with Roldan in the middle, and may also need to fill in at center back should the situation require it.
Ruidiaz’s first campaign with the Sounders didn’t get anywhere near the attention that Lodeiro’s did, and that probably has a lot to do with the fact that the team had started to turn things around before his arrival, but 13 goals in 15 appearances is an outrageous early return on investment, and I think that got somehow glossed over. I actually went back and counted because I hadn’t realized just how good it was. While this was obviously over a shorter period of time and therefore less of an accomplishment, that was more or less the same scoring rate as Josef Martinez. I’m not saying Ruidiaz is going to break the goalscoring record next year or anything, but I’m pretty comfortable saying that if he stays healthy he’s going to easily be a 20 goal a year guy and that’s something the Sounders haven’t had before.
Will Bruin is a fan favorite because of his amusing antics and also his ability to pop up late and score crucial goals. When the Sounders were struggling the most last season it was Bruin scoring and setting up goals that kept their head above water long enough to keep them from drowning while they waited for help.
Seattle have set the bar for a “successful season” pretty high, and merely making the postseason is no longer enough cause for celebration. Their recent early season woes have left them unable to compete for a Supporters Shield, and at least being back in that conversation would be one of the positive steps they could make this year. As I point out in nearly every one of these things, success in MLS comes down health, wealth, and luck. One of the reasons Seattle have been such slow starters recently is due to injuries. Not competing for MLS Cup or being in the CCL this time around the Sounders have actually had a full length preseason for the first time in a while and they appear to be entering the season with their first choice lineup more or less intact (although Brad Smith did leave the last preseason match early). A full season of good, fun, successful soccer and a Supporters Shield race are exactly what fans want to see, and what a team with the resources and support that Seattle have should be achieving.