After having to make the early season decision on who starts at right-back for the Sounders, Brian Schmetzer is faced with another defensive dilemma for Sunday’s home opener against the New York Red Bulls. Center back Román Torres is suspended for “violent conduct” against Montreal’s Ambroise Oyongo last weekend. This means Schmetzer has a couple of likely choices: bring in Oniel Fisher at right-back and shift Gustav Svensson over to center back; keep Svensson at right-back and bring in young defender Tony Alfaro to play next to Chad Marshall in the center; or even potentially starting Fisher wide with Alfaro at center back.
Even though he’s clearly not a huge fan of the position, Svensson has done everything he’s been asked to by Schmetzer and the coaching staff in the Sounders’ first two matches. “He would tell you that he’s more comfortable at center back or holding mid than right back,” Schmetzer said about Svensson. The Sounders coach even admitted that using Svensson in that position was a bit of a desperate move, as Oniel Fisher started the season undergoing concussion protocol. This makes it sound like Fisher was the likely backup for Brad Evans at the position, but his medical issue forced some early changes. He played about 30 minutes against Montreal, and earned the penalty that got the Sounders back into the match.
Even though Svensson has played admirably, it’s there were some part of the game he’s struggled with. Against Montreal, he was often caught 1v1 against Ignacio Piatti, one of the quickest and trickiest players in the league. Schmetzer said “he had a hard time against Montreal, but it’s a team game and team performance, they overloaded their left side and Gustav was on an island on his own out there. His performance in that game, I take responsibility for that.” Even though the Red Bulls don’t exactly have a Piatti, they have similar players that could limit the effectiveness of a guy like Svensson on the right side of defense.
But what about Tony Alfaro? Now in his second season with the team after getting drafted by the club in 2016, Alfaro impressed the staff enough to keep them from signing a dedicated veteran backup for this season. Svensson and Evans are utility players with experience at center back that are likely ahead of Alfaro, but between injuries and Open Cup matches, Alfaro’s likely to be pressed into action at some point. Sporting Director Chris Henderson said Alfaro “is a guy who made great strides last year. I think his feet are good, his vision is good, he competes every day. I think just training here in the environment he’s in, you can see improvement.”
But despite that improvement, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Alfaro will be the starter against the Red Bulls. Svensson’s experience will likely be called upon, with Fisher slotting in at right-back. Both players have at least some experience this season, and Alfaro has yet to see the pitch in the first two matches. For a game as significant, meaningful, and difficult as this home opener, Schmetzer won’t be taking any chances.