Right, so as much as that sucked...right or wrong the Sounders' season is at an end. So let's talk a bit about how 2018 was and a bit about what comes next.
A huge thanks to the writers, editors, moderators and anyone I may not have mentioned who help make Sounder at Heart possible once again this season. Thanks for keeping this place going as the best place for Sounders news and online discussion. We don't always see eye-to-eye but the discussions are civil even when things are bad.
Also a huge thanks to any Sounders players or staff that happen to wander across this on the interwebs. Thanks for working so hard to make this club successful now and into the future (and don't take this next part too hard).
That Start Really Sucked
The Jordan Morris ACL tear, the disappointing Clint Dempsey performances, the last minute goals for other teams and a lot of other things all combined for the second worst first 20 games the Sounders have ever assembled in MLS. 2016, the worst first 20 games the Sounders ever had, was 20 points in the first 20 games, this year was 23 points in 20 games. There's bad luck and exhaustion involved here, but there's also some bad decisions both in terms of coaching and roster construction, arguably the most glaring being not bringing in some sort of offensive reinforcements after Jordan Morris went down injured and continuing to play Clint Dempsey as a starter when it obviously wasn't working. I can't fully blame Lagerwey and Schmetzer for these results, but I also don't think you can fully blame fate for these results; it's a bit of everything. The fact that this is the third straight year of slow start or struggle for the Sounders isn't a great sign, but we'll talk about that more in looking at the offseason.
The End Was Beautiful
The Sounders had the best second half of the season in MLS history, 13-2-2 out of 17 games, that's really damn impressive. Much like the first half a lot of factors played into this (sadly) Clint Dempsey's retirement, players getting healthy, the addition of Raul Ruidiaz and Brian Schmetzer finding the right chemistry to put it all together (as long as key personnel stay healthy, that is). The playoffs will be a minor note in history, but that second half of the season will be mentioned for decades as a note on second half of the season performance; it's hard to imagine another team topping it.
I'm Still Mad
Frei got snubbed. Marshall got (kinda) snubbed. The no-calls and calls in that final playoff game drove me nuts. Combined all together the end of the season left e a bad taste in my mouth. It's not just that all of these things happen sometimes, it's that they all happened at once like some sort of bizarre conspiracy (don't worry, I'm not about to get out the tin foil hats). Hopefully it motivates the team going into the start of next season. Speaking of...
What's the Plan for Jordan Morris?
It may seem weird that I think this is the biggest question heading into the offseason but it really, truly is. With Morris presumably coming back healthy it throws a good sort of wrench into the system the Sounders currently run. I'll start with this (controversial) opinion: Jordan Morris is not a winger, at least not yet. Morris is fast and strong, yes, and those are good things for a winger, but I don't think his defensive skills or passing skills are up to snuff for this sort of role; a conversion is possible, but I don't think it's worth exploring. Jordan Morris' strength is in getting the ball and just blazing past center backs, and with Raul Ruidiaz as a pure "#9" type player, the field is fertile for the Sounders to take advantage of that with two up top. The question however is this: do the Sounders think Morris is healthy enough that they can reliably play in this style? Morris is coming off an ACL tear and played the previous season with a niggling hamstring injury that limited him. If the Sounders do think he's healthy enough, then they'll want someone with a similar skillset to back Morris up just in case he does get injured or for when he's on national team duty; if not...then he should be more a "super" sub as part of an alternate end-game formation when we need a goal.
Big Money Decision
The Sounders have a designated player spot, Alonso presumably won't be resigned for big money, Dempsey has retired. Designated Players should, in theory, be players you build around; so what could and should the Sounders build around? The center is strong with Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro on offense (I know Lodeiro ostensibly lines up as a winger but...he drifts around a lot and I think it's fair to say he's a #10 even if he's officially on the wing). A lot of that depends on if the Sounders switch formation to accommodate Morris; two up top might mean the Sounders go to a 4-4-2 or even a 3-5-2. Perhaps a bigger question is when to spend that big money, previously Lagerwey has waited for the summer window, but with five months to focus on it he might just break that rule, personally I hope so. Designated players should built off of and upon in my opinion and while it's fine to bring in a DP mid-season sometimes, doing so every summer means a big short-term impact, but a more disjointed team that may be more reliant upon that new player staying healthy and in-form. I'd like to see the Sounders establish their "big money" guys now, not later both so they can adjust to the league and so the team can build contingencies if something happens.
A Conundrum at the Center?
After having arguably the strongest central defensive midfielder corps for years, the Sounders may suddenly face a dilemma in the center. Gustav Svensson has said previously that he wants to return home at the conclusion of his contract and it's worth noting that with the payments from his former Chinese club his total salary spend is well into the seven figures; keeping a hold of him after his World Cup run probably means making him a designated player. Meanwhile, Ozzie Alonso's contract is up (with no extensions available so far as I can tell) and previously he did not react well when he was knocked off the designated player pedestal or when he was left exposed in the last expansion draft. The central problem is that as Alonso has gotten older he's increasingly not a guaranteed starter and the Sounders will not want to pay him as if he was one anymore, particularly considering he will only age (and decline) further, he may very well walk if the Sounders go too low for his tastes. If both Svensson and Alonso leave then that leaves Cristian Roldan and Jordy Delem as the only current central defensive midfielders left in the current lineup, a very good (but very young) duo, but one that will need reinforcements and back ups for when they're injured or away on national team duty. Finding quality central defensive midfielders that we don't have to pay too much to back up the young duo could be tough; hiring someone new means keeping Delem on the bench after he's done a lot to earn his minutes and a place as the next man up which could spur him to seek opportunities elsewhere. The current lineup and formation is built around solid, steady central defensive strength; this gives the attackers the strength to go wherever they like on the field and for the left and right backs to get into the attack; if central defense doesn't remain strong both offense and defense could decline.
In the last three years or so the Sounders have struggled, to varying degrees, in the early parts of the season. There's been reasons, or an excuses depending on your perspective, for the slow start each year. Whether it was Sigi Schmid's coaching getting stale, an MLS Cup hangover, CCL championship exhaustion or anything else you'd like to point to those reasons/excuses aren't present in the upcoming season. Sigi Schmid is long gone, the Sounders won't be playing in the CCL and the Sounders offseason was only 11 days shorter than that of the teams that didn't make the playoffs. The Sounders have roughly four months before they play another meaningful minute of soccer in which they can rest, recover, train, build the roster, implement new tactics and strategies and just generally prepare for 2019. If the Sounders struggle out of the gate yet again, then some serious questions need to be asked by fans and ownership of Garth Lagerwey and Brian Schmetzer. The Sounders shouldn't have a rough start to this season unless something bizarre/horrific occurs. There are no reasons, no excuses and no safety nets next year, the Sounders have to perform all season long and not just for the second half.
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