We are just about to enter the roughly two-week period that constitutes the real MLS offseason. Once Stage 2 of the Re-Entry Draft is completed on Thursday, the next significant league event is the MLS Player Combine that starts on Jan. 7, 2017. From there, it’s virtually continuous action with the MLS SuperDraft (Jan. 13) gliding into the opening of preseason (Jan. 23). Before you know it, we’ll be kicking off a new season (rumor has it that it will begin on March 4).
Now seems like as good of a time as any to take stock on what the Seattle Sounders need to do in order to defend their MLS Cup title.
The Sounders go into this offseason with the potential to be stable at a lot of important positions. Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso are almost all guaranteed to be back and starting. Similarly, go ahead and use pen to write in the names of Stefan Frei, Chad Marshall, Roman Torres and Joevin Jones into the First Kick starting lineup (barring injury, of course). Assuming Clint Dempsey continues his progression, he’ll likely occupy another starting spot. That’s a solid 9 of 11 starters.
This affords the Sounders quite a bit of freedom, as the two “open” spots could potentially be filled by players already under contract without too much risk. I’d have no complaints if Alvaro Fernandez and Brad Evans were the two players to slot in, for instance.
This would basically give the Sounders a slightly more dynamic version of the 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 hybrid that they employed during the short time that Dempsey and Lodeiro played together. If you recall, the Sounders enjoyed their best offensive form in the four matches those two played together, scoring nine goals and averaging 16.25 shots per game while going 3-0-1. That’s nearly a goal per game more than the Sounders scored in Lodeiro’s 15 other matches .
Similarly, the Torres-Marshall center back combo produced the Sounders’ best defensive form of the season. In the 12.5 games they played together, the Sounders allowed just eight goals and registered six shutouts.
What didn’t work
When you go 12-3-3 down the stretch and win MLS Cup, it’s tempting to simply want to get the band back together for an encore. As great as all that was, let’s not pretend there weren’t issues, though. The most obvious was that the Sounders had a Designated Player forward who only scored two goals all year (including playoffs). Nelson Valdez was far from useless, but the Sounders must get more out of their money than they did from him.
That underscores another problem that was somewhat papered over by success: The continued offensive over-reliance on a couple players. As good as Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro were, the Sounders need a bit more variety. Morris (seven), Lodeiro (eight) and Dempsey (five) accounted for 20 of the Sounders’ 32 goals over the final 20 games. Even more telling was that Lodeiro and Morris combined for 6 of 8 Sounders’ playoff goals. Specifically, the Sounders need more from the other attacking positions than they got from Andreas Ivanschitz (three goals), Nelson Valdez (two), Alvaro Fernandez (one) and Erik Friberg (zero). That’s six goals in nearly 6,000 combined minutes.
The big offseason issues
This could very well be one of the more quiet offseasons we’ve had in awhile, which is probably expected given how the season ended. There are no crisis-level personnel decisions that need to be made the way there was in 2013 or, to a lesser-degree, last year. The front office is probably going to stay largely intact, unlike in 2014 when Adrian Hanauer surprisingly stepped down. We have no debate over who should be the coach floating over our heads. Still, we have a few things that need to be addressed.
1. Identify an impact attacking player
For better or worse, the Sounders almost have to assume that Dempsey is going to be back. He’s given zero indication he intends to do otherwise and all signs point to him at least attempting to play in early 2017. How effective he is or how long he can go are massive questions, but they simply won’t be answered until the budget is already set.
The good news is that the pieces the Sounders have are reasonably versatile. We can argue about which position Morris is best suited for long term, but he’s shown capable of producing either from a wide position or up top. Similarly, while Lodeiro may be better starting from a wide position and cutting in, he was hardly a slouch as a No. 10.
That said, the Sounders probably need to have a plan to add another attacking player. It’s entirely possible that person doesn’t get here until midseason — the Sounders will likely move Osvaldo Alonso back to a DP and save the TAM — but they need to get that player identified sooner than later.
2. Advance those succession plans
They also need to work on getting younger. There’s a very real possibility that the starting lineup for First Kick will feature just four starters younger than 30 and only two younger than 25. The Sounders have now been talking about getting younger for two straight offseasons, and while they did an impressive job of keeping everyone healthy down the stretch they know they are playing with fire.
Effective teams don’t simply flip a switch and become younger over night, of course, but they still have a lot of work to do on those succession plans Garth Lagerwey has spoken so much about.
3. Make a decision on right back
There’s also a bit of a quandary over right back. The three leading options seem to be keeping Tyrone Mears, moving Evans there “permanently” or promoting Oniel Fisher. It’s probably safe to assume that Evans and Mears won’t both be back. But while Evans’ option has already been exercised, and Mears’ was turned down, it’s not impossible to see a scenario where Mears retains his position. Mears logged more minutes than any other outfield players and proved himself a capable defender. Evans again battled injury and has made it clear he wants to be somewhere he can settle into a position, which may or may not be here. Handing the keys over to Fisher would not be without risks, but it would allow the Sounders to get a bit younger.
The Sounders can always choose to off the board and bring in a right back from elsewhere, but that doesn’t seem to be anything like a priority.
My suspicion is that Evans returns as the assumed starter and that Fisher is given a bit more time to grow into the role, just don’t go betting the house on that.
The crown is heavy
Being a team everyone wants to beat won’t be anything new to the Sounders. The size of the target on their backs will be bigger, though.
The Sounders are trying to build a dynasty, make no mistake about it. This is not exactly the first step, but it’s a very important one. If they want to become MLS’s version of a super club, this is when they really make that happen. This will be a new challenge, and now the pressure will be to do it again. Let’s own it.