Preseason, it’s the time of year when you pray no one gets hurt. It’s also the time of year when the chemistry and tactical makeup of the team are first tested. There are plenty of storylines to follow this preseason, but perhaps none of them are more important to the team’s success over the course of 2018 than filling the offensive role vacated by defender Joevin Jones, who recently joined SV Darmstadt in 2.Bundesliga after two seasons with the Sounders. There is also a contest to determine who will be the starting left back.
Jones was the only defender to break into the top 20 assist leaders in MLS last season (he finished tied for 13th in the league with 11 assists), which makes him a unique weapon that is not easy to replace. The battle for left back is certainly a major talking point going into the Sounders first preseason match against the Portland Timbers (Feb 3 at 5:00 p.m.), but it is the offensive production from the player who previously held that position that really needs to be addressed.
Both Nouhou and Waylon Francis are strong candidates for the starting role at left back, but are either of them capable of duplicating the success that Jones had in setting up goals in the attacking third? If not, where will those assists come from?
The biggest question for me this preseason is whether or not the tactical role of the left back will remain the same as it was when Jones was on the field, or if the Sounders will rely more heavily on the midfield to set up their attackers in the box. The loss of Jones could put more pressure on Nico Lodeiro to create dangerous chances in the attacking third. Lodeiro was the only Sounder with more assists than Jones last season with 12, tied for ninth in the league. Next on the team was Clint Dempsey with five, and Gustav Svensson with four. Ozzie Alonso and Christian Roldan each finished the year with three assists a piece.
Two possibilities exist from the current likely starters — one is that Victor Rodriguez becomes more of a provider than he was in 2017. The other is that Roldan will have to take on a greater role in setting up goals this season, unless of course, the plan is keep the status quo. In that case, the preseason battle between left backs may come down to who offers more in the attack.
There isn’t enough room on the field for both Nouhou and Francis. Brian Schmetzer is certainly eager to see which one of those two will rise to the occasion.
“Nouhou is super talented,” Schmetzer said at the beginning of Seattle Sounders camp this week, “but if you watch Waylon’s career and watch what he did in Columbus, he had a couple of really good years there. That’s going to be really interesting to watch.”
President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey agrees.
“We plugged the numbers and he’s a guy who really compares favorably,” Lagerwey said of Francis. “He was a 2015 All-Star, has some of the attributes we look for in an attacking outside back. He can go both ways. He’s a guy in the prime of his career at 27 years old, so he really ticked all the boxes: character, age, experience, level of play. We’re excited about Waylon.”
There is no doubt that the loss of Joevin Jones leaves an important question unanswered heading into the preseason. If the Sounders are unable to find a way to inject the kind of attacking presence that Jones brought last season, whether it comes from the back, or it comes from the midfield, they may not be able to find their way to a third straight final. If they can, then we’re in for another great ride this year.