There are less than three weeks left in the Seattle Sounders preseason before the MLS season opens on March 4. A lot of the big issues seem reasonably settled by now: Stefan Frei and Clint Dempsey will likely be healthy, it’s unlikely another Designated Player will be added before the summer and most of the starting lineup seems pretty well set.
But on the periphery there are still some interesting issues, and the three matches in Charleston, S.C., are the last good chance to find out the answers.
1. How close are Dempsey, Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro to picking up where they left off?
The last time these three were on the field together, the Sounders were in the midst of run of form in which they went 3-0-1, scored nine goals and took 65 shots in four games. Dempsey had five goals during that stretch. Lodeiro was just starting to show how dominant he could be. Morris had just one goal, but he had two assists and was showing all sorts of new wrinkles to his game.
Saturday’s match against the Charleston Battery will be the first time those three have been on the field together in a plausibly competitive environment since last August. No one in their right mind expects them to be firing on all cylinders right away, but by the time the Sounders head home we’ll have a good sense of how far off we are from those days.
Morris’ role — assuming he plays up top and not on the left wing — should be straightforward enough. His job is to stretch the field and open up space. The bigger question will be how Dempsey and Lodeiro interact — within that particular trio — as they are both prone toward drifting inside and taking up a sort of free-roaming role.
2. Who fills out the attacking band?
If Morris is deployed as a No. 9, that leaves the battle for the left midfield spot open. Harry Shipp seemed to have the inside track heading into preseason, but he suffered an ankle injury and has been limited recently. Alvaro Fernandez has stepped in and been quietly effective.
Both players offer something a bit different to the table. Shipp has been deployed as more of a pure attacking player, while Fernandez might be a bit better in possession and has more experience deeper on the field. Either way, the decision will likely be made by which of them fits better with the other three than who might be the better choice in a straight-up competition.
That the Sounders are going to have to choose from players still basically in their athletic primes — one of whom is a World Cup veteran the other a regular starter throughout his MLS career — isn’t a bad problem to have, though.
3. Is Brad Evans or Oniel Fisher the starting right back for First Kick?
The last time Brad Evans started at right back for the Sounders was on Oct. 10, 2014, more than two seasons ago. Sure, he’s played there as recently as a few weeks ago with the United States national team and even filled that position admirably during the 2014 World Cup qualifying cycle, but he’s never regularly played there for the Sounders.
Fisher, oddly enough, hasn’t really played right back much for the Sounders either, logging just eight starts at the position across all competitions in two seasons.
Still, the Sounders seem to be in a good spot here. There should be little doubt that either player would handle the position ably, even if their styles are a bit different.
Evans would seem to have a slight advantage, if for no other reason than he’s more of a known commodity, at least in a broad sense. As long as he can stay healthy, he could actually prove to be an upgrade over Tyrone Mears, whose most impressive trait may have been his ability to start all but three MLS games during his two seasons. Evans’ crossing has looked a bit more consistent and he’s more apt to run at defenders as a midfielder. When he’s been deployed as a right back with the USMNT, though, he’s been a bit less aggressive. It will be interesting to see how he evolves there.
There’s no question that Fisher can get up and down the sideline, but there are questions about his ability to stay within himself. He’s been exposed at times in one-on-one situations (see the game in Vancouver last year) and has been whistled for some questionable fouls. But there’s still a lot to like.
4. How does the bottom end of the roster get filled out?
This won’t grab as many headlines, but once you get beyond the Top 16-18 players on the roster there are a lot more unsettled issues. Aaron Kovar’s injury only serves to open this up even further, as it’s entirely possible that someone like Henry Wingo or Seyi Adekoya could leapfrog him into the gameday 18 with a strong showing in Charleston.
Beyond the fight to be the "attacking option off the bench", the players worth watching are guys like Academy products David Olsen, Shandon Hopeau, Sam Rogers and Lorenzo Ramos, all of whom could potentially win first-team spots. S2 players like Zach Mathers, Carlos Irvin Parra and Jordy Delem are in a similar boat. Theoretically, the Sounders probably have room on the roster to sign all of them, but they’d all need to prove that they are better options than leaving spots open to bring on veterans as needed.
The first of those veterans they’ll be competing against is Darrius Barnes, a 30-year-old with eight years of MLS experience. Barnes isn’t necessarily the kind of player who will turn heads, but he is someone coaches like to have sitting around just in case they’re needed.