The Sounders opened their 2015-2016 offseason by retaining Sigi Schmid and releasing a number of depth players. In the wake of those moves, the team currently has 20 players on the Senior roster. Unfortunately, those players stratify into two very different groups.
The first 11 players range in age from 29-32 with a mean age of 30.64 and form a solid, veteran nucleus for the Starting 11. All 11 possess MLS starting or star-caliber skills. If they are all healthy at the same time (a big if), they could be used to field a trophy-contending MLS starting squad. While on the older side of prime, this roster reasonably still has at least another year in the tank, barring injuries. But with the exception of Stefan Frei, all of these players are on the downslope of their careers.
The remaining nine players range in age from 18-24 with an average age of 22.11 and for the most part are still developmental projects that may or may not pan out. Only four of those players; Oniel Fisher, Christian Roldan, Dylan Remick and Aaron Kovar appear to clearly be MLS-level future starters and reasonable bets to make the 18 this season with consistency.
Early in Garth Lagerwey's Sounders FC tenure he spoke of needing to help grow the vertical structure of the club's organization. Most of that growth revolves around the Academy and S2 squads. But there should also be a vertical spine of players in development that runs through the Senior roster. His recent comments acknowledged that the team has a problem with the age of the players on the squad. The current roster has no players under contract between the ages of 25-28 and only four young players in this spine (barring the potential signings of Jordan Morris and Andy Rose). The vertical development of the senior team roster is nearly severed. In order to reload for the coming years, they will need to bring in players from outside of the organization.
So far this offseason, the team has shown no interest in bringing in established MLS talent. They passed on the re-entry draft. They're not linked to any of the MLS free agents. And they have only traded for Allocation Money, not players. With the league limits on International roster spots, the team appears to be targeting a small selection of International players and then intending to dip heavily into the college market.
This strategy would be the first step in rectifying the developmental spine of the team. 2016 will not be the final Sounders season for all of the older 11 players. With a few strategic signings, Garth and the technical team can begin to repair the team's development group. There's usable talent in the Academy: Ryan Herman is a GK and Jordan Schweitzer is a CDM, two draft-eligible players who could still end up with the Sounders. If Garth can sign these men to contracts through the HGP mechanism or convince them to join S2, the team gains two more players in this key age group. A solid draft with one or two MLS bench-ready players in the SuperDraft like last year, and suddenly the Sounders have reduced the scale of the problem to a more manageable level.
Here's a quick look at each area of the roster in terms of development. I expect they will bring in multiple players to camp to fight for positions, but once the dust settles the team needs the following bench depth.
Keeper: The team will carry three keepers. Garth has indicated that he is comfortable having two young backups. 2015 draft picks Charlie Lyon and Tyler Miller and Herman fighting for the two slots behind Stefan Frei is a realistic scenario.
CB: There are three starting caliber center backs on the roster and two development level players in Damion Lowe and Jimmy Ockford. The addition (and hopefully the health) of Roman Torres helps here and gives the team a bit more time to develop a couple CBs, but they need those CBs in the pipeline and playing in order to develop them.
FB: The Sounders already have two fairly developed backups in Fisher and Remick. If the team plans to shift Evans to LB once Torres is healthy, then the club might stand pat with what they have. If they expect Evans to rotate at CB, then they'll need another LB on the roster. There are a couple of decent LB options in this year's draft class. And there's always the potential for converting Kovar into a left back.
CDM: This is the largest hole in the current roster. The team has one CDM in Osvaldo Alonso, and there have been indications that Ozzie has played his last match in a Sounders kit. Schweitzer is a possibility for depth, but they need at least two CDMs on the roster come opening day assuming their base principles for the last seven years hold intact. It's also another slot they might try to shove The Sheriff into.
B2BM/ACM: Re-signing Rose would allow this position to be filled with a more long-range project. Rose and Roldan offer the team a good pair of developmental players.
LW/RW: The team could use a classic winger or two, but the logjam at forward impedes the immediate future of these positions. Valdez and Jordan Morris will see minutes at these positions if the team runs a 4-4-2 (assuming of course that Morris signs.) Ivanschitz and Kovar provide the more technical side of the position, but a Steve Zakuani-style dribble and pace wide midfielder would go a long way to completing this roster of pieces.
FWD: With three DP forwards, the Sounders have an embarrassment of riches at the top of their formation. It's also the deepest part of their development tree: Jordan Morris is one of the team's primary targets. They have Darwin Jones and Victor Mansaray on the roster and Andy Craven coming back to S2. And there's plethora of Academy products in the college ranks. A word of caution though: young striking talent can (much like its more experienced teammates,) be fickle and prone to streaks.
Not all of these positions will be filled with younger players for the 2016 season. But the next few months are going to be all about shoring up the Sounders bench from positions 12-22 and not about fixing perceived shortcomings in positions 1-11. No team can sustain greatness if they can't replace their aging talent, which is why it's so important that the Sounders begin the transition now.