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It sure looks like Sounders are in transitional phase

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I prefer to try to understand rather than simply rage.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Seattle Sounders FC at San Jose Earthquakes Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

There are two main narratives coming out of the Seattle Sounders’ earlier-than-desired exit from the U.S. Open Cup, the third straight year they’ve failed to advance to the semifinals after doing so in 7 of 8 years.

The positive narrative goes something like this (and one I’ll admit to subscribing to): The Sounders made a collective choice to rest a bunch of starters who had been playing a ton of minutes, not risk injury and see how their younger players could hold up in a tough game on the road. This narrative gladly points out that in this group -- none of the starters were older than 25 and four of them were 21 or younger — played about even with what amounted to the San Jose Earthquakes’ normal starters, on the road and down a man. The Earthquakes didn’t find their eventual winner until the 84th minute and with a little better finishing the Sounders could have actually been leading at that point. They did this after giving up an early goal, looking completely overwhelmed in the first 15 minutes or so and going down a man in the 35th minute.

The negative narrative goes something like this (and seems to be what is dominating social media and our comments sections): The Sounders made a collective choice (or maybe it was just Garth Lagerwey) to not put out a competitive lineup, disrespected the tournament, disrespected their own legacy and were lucky that the Earthquakes couldn’t more thoroughly punish them after taking 20 shots, including 11 inside the penalty area. They did this with a group that only featured one normal starter and just three players who have seen regular playing time. The Sounders have shown themselves to have lost the mentality of becoming a “big club” that is intent on competing for every trophy imaginable.

Technically speaking, there’s truth in both arguments. I will admit that the first is probably a bit too rosy, but I the second is way over the top (even without my added hyperbole).

I do think we learned things about this team’s depth that we wouldn’t have otherwise learned. I do think we had veterans starters who were due for rest. I do think we showed a lot of positive attributes in the loss, the best of which was winning 58 percent of the duels.

Lack of ambition or pragmatism?

But it’s hard to argue that we aren’t currently practicing a level of pragmatism that the Sounders effectively rejected in previous years, at least at a quick glance. We aren’t, in fact, using as many veterans or regular starters as we have in some previous seasons.

Digging into the lineups and schedules a bit, I found that it’s not quite as simple as a quick run through our mental Rolodex might suggest. The Round of 16 lineup in 2014, for instance, was almost all veterans and was about half of our normal starters. Of course, we also hosted that game, had a much more veteran-heavy roster and hadn’t played a league game for almost three weeks (for the World Cup). In the 2012 Round of 16 game, the Sounders started six veterans and three starters, although, again after a nearly two-week break between league games.

The last time the Sounders were in a truly comparable scheduling situation during the Round of 16 was in 2011. That year, the Sounders rolled out a lineup with two bona fide starters and five veterans (but again, the roster was simply more veteran heavy). Where the comparison breaks down a bit, admittedly, is that this was the first round of the tournament that featured MLS teams and the Sounders were facing the Kitsap Pumas.

I’m not going to suggest the Sounders are putting just as much emphasis on winning the Open Cup as they once did — it’s hard to argue against that — only that the gap between what they used to do and what they do now is probably being exaggerated a bit.

Cutting costs?

There’s a popular theory making the rounds that the Sounders got themselves in this mess because they’re being cheap. Commenter tgaffne even shared this chart:

Sounders Total Compensation…
2013 – $10,948,987
2014 – $10,421,531
2015 – $11,368,380
2016 – $12,448,734
2017 – $10,372,300

It’s true, this does make it look as if the Sounders are spending nearly $2 million less on total compensation now than they were in 2016. There’s a rather important piece of context missing, though: Last year’s figure includes the roughly $1.7 million the Sounders are reportedly paying Nicolas Lodeiro, who didn’t sign until midway through the season. Similarly, the 2015 data includes all of the $1.2 million the Sounders paid summer signing Nelson Valdez as well as the full salaries of Andreas Ivanschitz, Roman Torres and Erik Friberg.

By prorating those numbers, the Sounders salary figures were closer to $10.3M in 2015 and $11.5M in salary in 2016. For that matter, we could also deduct a sizable chunk for the 2013 figure as it assumes a full year of Clint Dempsey, who joined at midseason.

Remember, the only salary expenditures MLS teams actually pay out of pocket is Designated Player salaries and transfer fees. They aren’t actually lowering their costs by only having 23 players on the roster, as they could simply choose to sign a bunch of on-cap players and not raise their out-of-pocket salary expenditure one dime. Once you factor in the reported $6 million transfer fee the Sounders paid for Lodeiro and the expected DP signing this summer, it looks more like the team has increased overall spending each year Lagerwey has been here. They’re just spending the money differently and saving money to spend in the summer.

I don’t know enough about the inner-workings of the club to know if they are trying to cut costs elsewhere, but best I can tell they aren’t saving much if anything on players.

Blame the thin roster

None of this is to suggest the Sounders are without blame in this scenario. Even if you accept that using young players is a fine strategy early in the Open Cup and even if you think the Sounders were kinda left playing the hand they were dealt, there’s still room to be frustrated.

Injuries and overuse are real issues the decision-makers had to weigh in choosing this lineup. Chad Marshall, Brad Evans and Roman Torres all could probably use the extra time to get healthy. Nico Lodeiro, Osvaldo Alonso, Gustav Svensson and Stefan Frei have all played virtually every available minute and were due some rest. Cristian Roldan, Jordan Morris and Clint Dempsey were all unavailable for various reasons. Everyone else was basically made available.

Some of that is bad luck. Because of injuries, the Sounders have been forced to use players much more than planned — I can’t imagine the Sounders thought Svensson would be on pace for nearly 3,000 minutes — but this is also of their own making. Only having 23 players under contract is a questionable strategy, and having one or two more veterans around seems almost like a no-brainer.

The organization had to know that this strategy would make competing for the Supporters’ Shield and Open Cup more difficult. The gamble is clearly that the flexibility they’ll have in the summer transfer window will make a late-season run easier and ideally even set them up better next year. Maybe this is all just part of a two-year rebuild and next year we’ll be back to trying to win every tournament we enter.

I guess my point is that anger and frustration is fine and maybe even desired (we should hold the Sounders to a higher standard) but I also think we should try to see the bigger picture. I think I see what the Sounders are trying to do -- set up the roster for longer term stability — and I’m hopeful this will be the last first half of the season that felt wasted for a few years.