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Sounders will have big money sitting on the bench, and that’s a good thing

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Infusion of TAM means competition for the starting lineup as well as the bench.

Jane Gershovich/Sounders FC

The response to the Seattle Sounders’ signing of Magnus Wolff Eikrem has been overwhelmingly positive. Fans wanted a TAM-worthy signing, fans got a TAM-worthy signing. That it comes early enough in the preseason that he should be able to be fully incorporated into the team by the start of the season is a huge bonus, as is the fact that he’s young enough, 27, to be a building block for years to come.

But there’s a smaller contingent, maybe not even particularly vocal, who have been less enthusiastic. They look at the roster and simply ask “why this guy?” It’s a fair question. Eikrem is not so different than a lot of players on this team. Nicolas Lodeiro, Victor Rodriguez, even Clint Dempsey to a degree, are players who naturally gravitate to the center of the park even when they are deployed out wide. By all appearances, Eikrem shares that characteristic.

It’s not just “why this guy?” that these fans are asking, but specifically “why not a Number 9?” Despite having two youngish players who have double-digit goal seasons in their recent past, some see forward as the offensive position most in need of an upgrade. I’m not here to say those people are necessarily wrong. Rather, I think they are just ignoring the main reason for Eikrem’s signing: to increase competition.

It’s maybe not the most obvious benefit to his signing, but it was one that head coach Brian Schmetzer mentioned in the press release announcing the move.

“Healthy competition at every position is good for the team,” he said. “I look forward to getting Magnus into preseason camp and seeing how he fits with the squad.”

MLS has been steadily bringing in very good players at all positions, and has been doing it more often in recent years. But players with higher salaries have almost always been virtually guaranteed playing time. That’s just one of the realities of a salary-capped league like MLS, where coaches simply can’t afford to bench their most expensive players. When high-salaries players aren’t starting, they are more often moved away. This was the exact situation Alvaro Fernandez found himself in during his first stint, as he was taking up a Designated Player roster spot while not quite producing like one.

As recently as a couple years ago, the idea of committing high six figures to a player who might not even start was almost unthinkable. Even now, players like this are mostly expected to be automatic starters.

So, it’s understandable that some people are looking at Eikrem’s résumé and questioning how good a signing it is.

But here’s the thing: with the flood of allocation money into the system, the old equations just don’t matter as much. We saw this last year when the Sounders signed Rodriguez and didn’t even feel compelled to play him for the first three games, instead allowing him time and space to get comfortable. We’re going to see it more this year.

My colleague Dave Clark was running some numbers and realized that the Sounders entire roster had a listed salary of about $3.1 million in 2009. There are going to be games this year when the Sounders have at least that much on the bench.

This should be seen as a good thing. MLS can only improve so much as long as the highly paid players are effectively guaranteed starting spots. Even the best players won’t be at their sharpest if they don’t feel as though they need to win their spot every week, and that’s one of the biggest complaints lodged against the league by people who think players like Jordan Morris won’t fully develop here.

But even beyond the big picture stuff, the Sounders stand to benefit, particularly. With the way the roster is structured today, one of Dempsey, Lodeiro, Rodriguez, or Eikrem will almost always be on the bench. Similarly, one of Osvaldo Alonso, Gustav Svensson, or Cristian Roldan is almost certainly going to be coming off the bench as well. The Sounders also are unlikely to start Will Bruin and Jordan Morris together. There’s a trickle-down effect too, with spots in the 18 even harder to come by. That’s going to lead to some serious competition for spots, and give Schmetzer some very nice late-game options.

Ever since Garth Lagerwey joined the Sounders, he’s been talking about having a roster that allows his coach to plug-and-play. When he was at RSL, that meant hoping that lower-end roster players could mimic starters as needed. Now, that will often mean asking a similarly talented player to simply do the job expected of them all along. This should make the Sounders an even more resilient team than they already were.

It’s going to take some time to get used to this new world, but there’s a lot to like.