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Sounders keeping options open in search for next Designated Player

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With Osvaldo Alonso’s impending free agency, the club is weighing how (or if) it should fill the vacant DP slot.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of Seattle’s exercised contract options for the 2019 season, it is clear that the Sounders will return a strong squad for the upcoming season. Still, the search for the third Designated Player (a slot that is rumored to possibly be disappearing after 2019) remains at the forefront of fans’ minds as the January transfer window looms.

Speaking to the media on Nov. 20, a panel that included GM Garth Lagerwey, head coach Brian Schmetzer and sporting director Chris Henderson sounded confident of a stronger start to 2019.

And they have reason to be. Players currently under contract for next season played 89 percent of the available minutes in the regular season. The most notable player not currently under contract is club talisman Osvaldo Alonso, who will enter free agency once the season officially ends after playing 1,833 minutes (eighth-most on the team).

Alonso’s potential departure — as well as Clint Dempsey’s retirement — opens up the much-coveted DP slot, which most teams use to add high-budget attacking talent to their rosters. Henderson, whose scouting kept him so busy that he listened to the second leg of the conference semifinals against Portland on a plane ride home, discussed the trend of buying attacking players.

“We talk about it,” Henderson said. “Many times teams will spend their money on the attacking positions because that’s where you can have an impact on winning games. I think we discuss how we can build the team and the key positions around that. Those are ongoing every day.

“The attacking player has changed in that more money has come into the league. You’re able to get a higher caliber of attacking player. Every team defines their needs differently. With Brian, it’s chemistry. It’s believing in the club, being part of the club. The character of the player. Look at (Nicolás) Lodeiro for example. He’s a fantastic player and his work rate is contagious. He’d do anything for the club. I think that’s what you want in a Designated Player.”

On paper, the Sounders didn’t quite follow script. According to the MLS Players’ Association, eight of Seattle’s top 12 earners still on the books at the end of 2018 were defenders, holding midfielders or MLS Keeper of the Year finalist Stefan Frei.

It was a recipe that kept the Sounders playoff-relevant, even when the offense wasn’t producing. The Sounders’ 37 goals allowed was the second lowest margin in the league, trailing only the New York Red Bulls’ 33.

Nearly all those players, save Alonso and perhaps center back Román Torres, who lost his starting spot to newcomer Kim Kee-hee, are slated to return in 2019. With such a solid defensive core, can Seattle splash cash up top with a mind toward making its offense as lethal as its defense was dominant?

Henderson and Schmetzer were playing things close to the vest. Understandable, since DP-level deals are often for players who could still command respectable salaries overseas and most MLS clubs cannot afford the bidding wars in the modern era of super-inflated wage bills.

There was one consistent theme between what Henderson and Schmetzer discussed: fit.

“The way we look at it is how they’re going to combine with the players that we have,” Henderson said. “How is that player going to bring Jordan’s strengths out, or Raúl’s? We try and project how they’re going to interact with our players, which is very hard to do, but that’s how we’ve had success building teams. Try and get a guy who will fit into our game plan.”

With the potential elimination of the third DP slot, perhaps the club will look to buy a few players who will round out the squad more completely than gamble on one big piece.

“Are we looking for a specific type?” Schmetzer said. “Is Chris charged with looking for a back-to-goal No. 9? No, we don’t say that. Chris has a very good eye for talent. If you look at our forwards recently. We had Nelson (Valdez), we had (Obafemi Martins), we had Clint (Dempsey), we had Jordan (Morris) and we added Raúl (Ruidíaz). All of those five guys are different. They all have different characteristics. My biggest thing, when I can vent to (Henderson and Garth Lagerwey) and say ‘this is what I want,’ one of the threads is always a person that has good integrity. That cares about being a good pro. That cares about this club. That cares about winning. They have certain character traits that I feel are important for the makeup of the squad.

“Chris’ professional view, Garth’s professional view, all the scouts [talking] about ‘can he run off the back shoulder?’ ‘Is he a back-to-goal guy?’ Some of those nuances, we have conversations all the time, but we’re not specific about ‘okay, we’re the Seattle Sounders, we’re always going to have this type of player.’ I think there’s more nuance to it, but the common thread is always what they view our club as.”