The Sounders win/tie/penalty loss to the Timbers was a gut punch that broke up one of most successful runs of form in MLS history. As in the regular season, the team’s final playoff match featured enough improbable comebacks that by the end, another trip to the MLS Cup Final seemed like destiny—even when the fate of the season lay in the hands of penalties. Unfortunately, as if challenged one too many times by the nearly unbeatable rave green, the soccer Gods chose penalties against Portland as their platform to cruelly prove that no team can win forever.
In the wake of a season that ended as abruptly in November as it changed for the better in July, tough questions remain. Not just questions about the playoff tragedy such as “What could have been with a healthy roster?” Or, “Do I still have to spend Thanksgiving with my family/friends if they are Timbers fans?”
But questions about what will come to be in 2019: “Do the Sounders have an established style of play moving forward?” “Did the season end due to unfortunate injuries or a fundamentally flawed roster?” And finally, “What positions will Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan play in 2019?”
These questions about the future will drive a potentially tumultuous offseason that could see the departure of a legend and the return of a prince who was promised. To understand them better, this Tactics and Trends will look at the biggest turning points of the season and parse out what elements from the Sounders’ historic run are sustainable, and what will need to be reworked in 2019.
Most of the turning points in the Sounders’ 2018 season were changes made after the June 30 home loss to the Timbers. As such, the majority of positive results correlated with these changes can be summed up by the stat: best half season in MLS history. Since the Sounders’ finished their season in such positive form, the pertinent question with regards to these changes won’t be whether or not they were successful, but why they were successful.
Playing Nico Lodeiro in the middle of the field was successful because he has the highest combination of work rate and technical ability of anybody on the team, and quite possibly, in the entire league. The Uruguayan maestro can press as well as he can play a final pass, which is to say, very well. Putting your best all around player in the middle of the field where he can find the ball most frequently on offense and defense makes a lot of sense.
Sustainability rating: Very high
Moving Lodeiro to the middle of the field worked particularly well this year since the team wasn’t very fast on the wings, and therefor relied more on smart interchanging and combination play than direct through balls. But while Lodeiro proved excellent when surrounded by like-minded midfielders, his cerebral wingers benefited from his presence in the middle more than the other way around.
Even if the Sounders decided to completely flip their style of their 4-2-3-1 and put the pacey Brad Smith and Jordan Morris on the wings, Lodeiro could still tear it up from the middle of the park, albeit with more through balls and less tight combo play. Also, should the Sounders go 4-4-2, Lodeiro has the engine to play box-to-box as long he’s paired with a more defensive minded partner at center mid.
Nouhou’s development throughout the year is one of the few stories that doesn’t revolve around the Sounders’ midseason turnaround. The young Cameroonian left back found himself in a battle with veteran Waylon Francis at the start of the year, but established himself as the first-choice before the Sounders began their second-half tear. Nouhou was then benched halfway through the Sounders nine-match winning streak only to find himself in the line-up once again for a five-match win streak to close out the season and both playoff games.
All that’s to say, there’s no obvious link between Nouhou’s minutes and the team’s results. Individual improvement defined the lock down defender’s season more than who he did or didn’t beat out for playing time.
Where Nouhou started the season as a great 1v1 defender who occasionally struggled with positioning and had very little to offer going forward, he finished the season as an elite all-around defender who showed promising development in the offensive third. Not bad for a 21-year-old.
Sustainability rating: High
Assuming Bournemouth doesn’t recall Smith this offseason, Nouhou will have tough competition for the starting left back spot heading into next season. Nouhou’s key advantage in that competition will be the impending expiration of Smith’s loan deal next summer.
Even if Smith gains the edge over Nouhou, it won’t make sense for the team to leave the S2 product starving for minutes in the first half of the season only to thrust him into the line-up if/when Smith leaves in the summer. Best (and most likely) case scenario, Nouhou and Smith will share minutes in the first half of the season, allowing Nouhou more time to develop his offensive skillset before becoming the unquestioned starter in the second half of the season.
The Alonso/Svensson pairing
Osvaldo Alonso and Gustav Svensson not only anchored the best second half of a season in MLS history, they also helped the team earn four points from the two matches the duo started together as holding mids in the otherwise dismal first half of the season. The pairing worked well because both players were willing and able to sit back and protect the team from counters when the Sounders sent their outside backs into the attack. Moreover, the pair had complementary possession styles with Svensson’s chips and long balls spreading defenses out while Alonso’s dribbling and short passing ability helped the team keep the ball in tight quarters.
While the veteran duo’s ability to read the game defensively allowed them to put out more fires than one might expect of a holding-mid combo in which both players were older than 30, a lack of ability to cover ground did end up limiting the pairing defensively. The Timbers exploited that weakness in the playoffs, particularly in the first leg in which Diego Valeri consistently found pockets of space around Svensson and Alonso in the attacking midfield and spurred his team to victory as the catalyst of both Portland goals.
Sustainability rating: Low
The Sounders picked up Svensson’s option, but have not yet re-signed Alonso, who will officially become a free agent in the coming weeks. If Alonso does re-sign, it will be with a reduced salary and likely a reduced role. Everything that made Alonso and Svensson a good pairing can still exist in 2019, but consistently starting the two together will be a game of diminishing returns as both will be a year older and less likely to hold up for an entire season. Alonso in particular — who’s more than a year older than Svensson and, more importantly, has battled injuries over the three of the last four seasons — would likely need consistent rest even when healthy.
If Alonso signs elsewhere, Cristian Roldan would be the most likely choice to replace the honey badger since Roldan has played the bulk of his minutes for the Sounders as a defensive mid anyway. That move would likely reintroduce the Svensson-Roldan pairing that looked good for large chunks of the 2017 season, but struggled against Toronto in that year’s final and hasn’t found consistent footing since. Sliding Roldan back with Svensson would help the team cover more ground in the midfield, but Alonso’s leadership and ability to dictate tempo in possession may be missed. Should the Sounders choose to keep Roldan in the attacking band of three, look for the team to sign a rangy, technically excellent holding midfielder to dictate play next to Svensson.
The fluid attacking midfield
The Sounders’ season kicked off in earnest when Lodeiro, Roldan, Harry Shipp, and Victor Rodriguez laid claim to the attacking midfield. Though Roldan had decent pace to get in behind, and Rodriguez provided some direct play off the dribble, the Sounders’ attacking band of three was primarily defined by their ability to interchange and create combinations in tight spaces. Handwalla Bwana also showed he had the technical ability to get in on the action towards the end of the year, while Alex Roldan’s composed passing game let him find minutes off the bench as well.
The intricate passing from the Sounders’ attacking midfield over the second half of the year was a joy to watch, but ultimately succeeded more in it’s ability to wear teams down for corners, set pieces, and half chances in the box than in creating copious opportunities in behind the defense. Over the course of a season, the patient, possession-oriented style of play displayed by the fluid band of three will earn the team more wins than losses, but come crunch time when the Sounders need a goal, the coaching staff would likely prefer to have more direct options off the bench, particularly if the team loses Smith in the summer.
Sustainability rating: Medium
With confirmation that Shipp and Rodriguez will be under contract next season, the chances are good that the Sounders will deploy their all-combo attacking midfield unit at least occasionally next season. Whether or not that look becomes Schmetzer’s first choice will be in question now that Jordan Morris is expected back for the start of the season. Should Schmetzer stick with a 4-2-3-1, Morris would most likely find minutes on the wing where he’d provide a much more direct option than the Sounders’ other wide midfielders. Starting Morris on the left and featuring him as an outlet for direct play could also compliment Nouhou’s game as it would allow the left back to keep a more defensive position throughout a match.
Ruidiaz on a roll
Nobody finished the season in better form than Raul Ruidiaz, who scored eight goals in his last five matches. Ruidiaz boasts a fairly complete offensive skill set that allows him to provide solid hold-up play, threats in behind, and options in combination play. But while the prolific striker’s well-rounded skill set allows him to make subtle contributions without scoring, it’s his elite movement and finishing ability in and around the box that makes him one of the best strikers of the league. As long as the Sounders can get the ball into their opponent’s box, Ruidiaz will score goals.
Sustainability rating: Extremely high
Barring injury, Ruidiaz’s ability to score goals is the closest thing to a lock the Sounders have in 2019. Whether tapping in crosses, volleying botched clearances, or lacing shots from outside the 18, the DP will find ways to get on the score sheet.
The Sounders could deploy a 4-4-2 with him and Morris up top, which would be sure to give center backs problems as both could break through a defensive line at a moment’s notice. Neither player is a traditional “hold-up” guy who would take the bulk of possession duties with back to goal, but both should be able to chip in enough in that department get the job done.
The bigger problem with the traditional 4-4-2 is that it doesn’t particularly suit the rest of the roster well as the team is short on the type on sideline-hugging and speedy wingers that makes the formation most dangerous. Then again, Schmetzer could solve that problem by revisiting the 4-4-2 diamond he tinkered with last preseason.
- After exercising the options of every eligible player who saw minutes over the second half of the season, the Sounders look primed to pick up where they left off in 2018 — winning every match in which mid-match injuries didn’t throw the team out of whack. That means — even with the inevitable addition of new players in the offseason — the team will likely roll out a 4-2-3-1 as their primary formation. However, if Morris ends up on the wing, the formation will look more lopsided than last year with the speedy homegrown player running in behind while the outside mid on the opposite wing tucks inside, a style the closer to how the Sounders played in 2016 and 2017.
- Handwalla Bwana, Alex Roldan, and Henry Wingo are all officially under contract for next year. That leaves the bottom end of the attacking midfield rotation pretty well flushed out, unless the younger Roldan becomes more central depth. Either way, the Sounders are set to bring back one of the most experienced midfields from top to bottom they’ve ever had. Hopefully such familiarity will buck the trend of starting slow and help the team compete for the Supporters Shield in 2019. Is it too soon to get hyped? Never.