Even by the usually boring standards of Seattle Sounders preseason, this year was pretty underwhelming. A notable rumor aside, the biggest signings all happened before preseason officially began, the Sounders went 0-3-2 and their best offensive performance came after they went down 4-0.
But don’t let all of that fool you, there were some significant questions that needed answering this preseason. Here’s some of what was learned as we get ready for Saturday’s season opener:
Clint Dempsey is back
This was, without question, the biggest issue facing the Sounders when they opened camp. The Designated Player had gone about six months without anything resembling competitive action after he was sidelined last August with some sort of heart issue. From the first day of training, it was obvious that his skills and instincts were intact. The only question was how his heart would hold up as he increased his workload.
So far, so good.
Although Dempsey didn’t score during preseason, he was still doing most of the stuff he’s become known for. The audacious passes, the tricky footwork, the flying volley attempts, the fierce competitiveness, they were all there. But the best part was that with each game, he increased the number of minutes to the point that he could probably play the full 90 on Saturday if it’s required.
The Dempsey-Nicolas Lodeiro-Jordan Morris partnership never really got much opportunity to shine last season, but it looks like we’ll get some time to figure that out. That’s about the best we could reasonably have hoped for.
The goalkeeping situation is in good shape
That Stefan Frei was able to start Saturday’s preseason finale was a huge positive. That he looked sharp and ready to start was even better. But aside from his health, we knew what we’d have in Frei whenever he returned.
What we were less sure of was his backup, presumably Tyler Miller.
First off, we now know that Miller is the clear No. 2. Miller started three of the five preseason games, with Bryan Meredith getting the nod in the midweek game against Atlanta United and Frei going in the final. Miller may not have been perfect, but he only allowed one goal in each of his starts. He also showed a strong command of his box and backline despite not always having starters in front of him.
It’s a little tougher to know what to make of Meredith as his only runout came with a group of players who are unlikely to see time for the first team this year. But at least he didn’t seem to get too discouraged and managed to make a couple saves that kept the scoreline from being even worse by the time some starters came in late.
Alvaro Fernandez likely won a starting spot
Like virtually everyone in the offensive group, Fernandez didn’t do anything particularly spectacular. He did, however, show some ability to link up and fit in with players like Lodeiro and Dempsey. Combine that with Harry Shipp hardly getting much time with the first team while he recovered from an early preseason knock and it looks like Fernandez will be the starter, at least in the early going.
The only other real challenge to his spot would be if Will Bruin gets the nod up top and Morris slides into the midfield. While Bruin had some encouraging moments around goal — his goal and assist made him the Sounders’ most prolific offensive player of the preseason — he seemed to struggle to do much in the way of hold-up play or help in the buildup. In any case, he doesn’t seem to have done enough to push Morris out of his more natural position.
The addition of Gustav Svensson is looking very smart
The Sounders had one glaring need at the start of preseason, a backup defensive midfielder. Svensson seemed like the perfect addition in that sense. What the Sounders didn’t count on needing was a third right back.
But after Oniel Fisher (Jamaican Nation Team, then concussion) and Brad Evans (United States National team, then calf injury) both missed all of the Sounders preseason, it was Svensson who got a look in the final preseason match. Svensson is not a natural right back and the Crew repeatedly attacked his side in the first half, but he adapted and turned in a solid second-half performance. Now, it looks like he may be the starting right back at First Kick.
Chances are one of Fisher or Evans will ultimately win the permanent starting job but if Svensson can just be passable for a few weeks, that would be a huge boost. It’s not ideal, but it sure beats whatever other options were already on the roster.
Henry Wingo rose to the challenge
You could be excused if you didn’t spend too much time thinking about Wingo’s decision to leave the University of Washington early to join the Sounders on a Homegrown Player contract. He was, after all, the lesser accomplished of fellow HGP Seyi Adekoya and neither came with anything like the hype of Jordan Morris or DeAndre Yedlin.
Maybe it’s the contrast to those expectations, but no player has done more to grab the hearts and minds of Sounders fans this preseason than Wingo. The 21-year-old has looked right at home playing against starting MLS quality opponents and downright dominant against lesser competition.
The expectation coming into camp was that he’d slot in somewhere deep on the depth chart as a midfielder or maybe as a right back project. Instead, he may have played himself into some serious playing time.
Wingo’s size and athleticism are impressive, but so are his technical abilities and his dynamism. Watching him, it’s hard to understand how he only scored two goals during his college career until you consider that Jamie Clark used him mostly as a defensive midfielder. Although we’re more accustomed to seeing players move back on the pitch as they advance, Wingo may be a rare player who moves forward as he looks like he has a future as a winger.
It’s surely too early to get excited — remember Darwin Jones’ breakout last preseason? — but this looks like a player to keep an eye on.
First Kick Starting XI
All of that has left us with what seems to be a pretty straightforward starting XI for the Houston Dynamo match. This is Sounder at Heart’s best guess: Frei; Jones, Torres, Marshall, Svensson; Alonso, Roldan; Fernandez, Dempsey, Lodeiro; Morris.
All told, that’s a lineup you probably could have predicted with 10/11 two months ago.