The Seattle Sounders were not chasing the 2016 MLS Cup when the team parted ways with Sigi Schmid in July — at least neither players nor management could have reasonably expected, at the time, to win the league championship. Midseason coaching changes have a long and dismal history.
Of 14 midseason managerial changes in MLS over the past five seasons, Brian Schmetzer's takeover represents only the second squad to reach the playoffs. The other was the 2015 Montreal Impact, which introduced Mauro Biello — and Didier Drogba — with 11 games remaining and a pre-switch PPG of 1.22; the 2016 Sounders had 19 points from 20 games when the 0-3 Kansas City disaster struck in July.
Extensive studies of the top divisions in Spain, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands have demonstrated little benefit to midseason managerial changes. Generally, any positive change is indistinguishable from "regression to the mean" — changes occurring in teams that are performing poorly when much of the difference between the middle of the table and the bottom can be measured by poor luck and circumstance, and a modest improvement could be expected independent of leadership.
Studying 2016 now is apt because the team has made, arguably, few major changes to the ideal XI left over from the second half of last season. Having accomplished the key seasonal goal of the cup, Seattle fans are really left with two questions: "Was it a fluke?" and "Can it get better?"
Was the 2016 Turnaround a Fluke?
One might get that impression from the numbers regarding coaching changes, but I would go with "no." The stats say that managerial changes will rarely make a significant difference in performance that exceeds random noise game-to-game.
Seattle's adjustments didn't end on the sideline. The most obvious changes at midseason, other than SchmetzerIn/SigiOut, were the additions of Nicolas Lodeiro and Roman Torres to the starting XI (Alvaro Fernandez struggled to offer more than generally uninspiring wing options, but could easily improve in 2017 if he lives up to his previous Seattle experience). Consistent roles and regular starts for the Alonso/Roldan central midfield combination along with a more conservative posture for right back Tyrone Mears also helped solidify the Seattle defense. Seattle conceded 1.35 goals per game under Schmid and 1.14 under Schmetzer.
Over the final 14 games, Lodeiro, as midfield creator, added four goals to eight assists and posted the second-highest expected assists rate (behind Dallas' Mauro Diaz) in the league of players crossing a 1,000-minute threshold. Under Schmid, Seattle scored one goal per game (0.79 if one excludes the 5-0 win over Dallas, facing a B lineup and benefiting from an early man advantage), a figure that increased to 1.71 in the final 14 matches. Extrapolated over a full season, that's the difference between the worst offense in MLS (by five goals under San Jose) and the 3rd best (three goals under NYRB), a change not easily attributed to pure chance.
The 2016 lineup was put in a rough position by the preseason departure of Obafemi Martins. Martins and Marco Pappa accounted for roughly 23% of Seattle's basic passes in 2015. The 2016 reliance on Clint Dempsey and Andreas Ivanschitz left a defensively thin midfield (though it should be noted the early-season goals conceded rate was decent-to-mediocre) and short on offensive possession. The proportion of passes (as a proxy for possession) taking place in the offensive half significantly differs between the Schmetzer and Schmid eras (see above). 63 percent of Seattle's passes came in their opponent's end after the change, versus 56 percent before. A sizable proportion of this can be attributed to Lodeiro's tremendous activity rates (nearly 60 passes per game). Seattle's raw shooting attempts decreased in the final 14, but team expected goals increased by nearly 0.4 to 1.68 (note that the Schmid-era average of 1.31 xG modestly supports considering the early offense unlucky to go along with poor performance).
Overall, peripheral statistics paint the picture of a Sounders team that was mediocre at best and undeniably unlucky prior to a managerial shift and key additions that crafted a genuine cup contender.
Can it Get Better?
Seattle put about 3,200 minutes — the share of a regular starter — into largely ineffective performances by Nelson Valdez, Alvaro Fernandez, Herculez Gomez, and Oalex Anderson. 2,000 minutes each of mixed effectiveness from Ivanschitz and Erik Friberg are potentially more difficult to replace, but Garth Lagerway's key offseason changes have particularly focused on rotational depth. Average performances by Will Bruin and Harry Shipp, based on their MLS backgrounds (and there is no reason to expect massive decline), would represent upgrades or similar performances over 2016 counterparts.
In the case of Shipp, Seattle has acquired an all-too-important backup for a significant portion of Lodeiro's skillset. In Gustav Svensson, the team has a defense-minded central midfielder more naturally suited to the role Friberg often filled last year. Either better play from Fernandez or a new acquisition to fill the open DP slot could further upgrade the fourth attacking position. Maturation (Roldan, Morris, Kovar, Jones, Fisher), better health (Dempsey, Evans ... or not), or team/league adjustments (Lodeiro, Fernandez) could favor individual improvements. Health will be the key factor (apart from typical year-to-year variance) potentially working against Seattle's lofty expectations.
The low-defense/low-touch attacking midfield of 2016 should serve as a cautionary note when we discuss the 2017 rotational options. Schmetzer appears committed to the 4-2-3-1 setup, and some have suggested starting Bruin up top with Morris on the wing may offer the most goal-dangerous lineup. Bruin has regularly scored goals at roughly the rate expected of starters in a dedicated forward role. He is slightly more prone than average to giveaways compared to his peers and has a low pass rate, both of which speak against his potential use as a distributing target forward. His success rate in aerial challenges is mediocre, though his touch can be surprisingly good for a big man. Think of him as Kenny Cooper (who, in role analysis, was one of his closest matches in 2015), but more aggressive in the air and not quite as good at most other aspects of play.
Bruin is an expensive but valuable secondary forward who will offer good value to this Sounders team for his first 1,000 to 1,500 rotational minutes and use in open cup play. Shipp is a strong short- and long-range passer able to use both feet effectively in close quarters, but has a size disadvantage against many MLS defenders and a reputation for fading over a full 90. Fernandez is a solid short passer with good attacking movement — a legitimate tertiary scoring threat — but is not particularly pacey or dangerous when isolated. Kovar is a traditional winger with an excellent cross that is, relatively, wasted on a team that lacks an elite aerial attacking threat (remember that crossing has a naturally low rate of success, as well). The team will have to be careful in selecting the fourth attacker in a manner that sustains the link-up play that built the cup run.