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Sounders’ injury problems are worse than you imagined

Toronto can’t really sniff the problems the Sounders have had, and SKC is disgustingly healthy.

Carlos Cruz / La Culebrita Macheteada

If it seems like the Seattle Sounders has bad luck and is injured more than everyone else, it is because they are. The Sounders are underperforming expectations for plenty of reasons this year, and while the team they are able to field should be playing better, it does not change the fact that injuries are a big reason why.

Seattle and Toronto FC, the MLS Cup finalists two years in a row, both are off to incredibly slow starts this season. TFC earned seven points in their first nine matches and Seattle has eight. While most expect Toronto to recover and are writing off the losses due to squad rotation and injury, the consensus is that Seattle is in deeper trouble. Seattle likely just needs to find an offense that works and grind out results until a new DP comes, but the bigger problem is getting healthy. Both Toronto and Seattle have injuries stacking up. Compared to the top teams in the conferences it looks bad, but even Toronto has nothing on Seattle.

To see how badly Seattle has been impacted by injures, I compared the Sounders’ actual lineups and ideal lineup to those of Sporting Kansas City, Atlanta United and Toronto FC through each team’s first nine games of the 2018 season. Atlanta and Kansas City did have the benefit of no Champions League matches, but that gets factored in.

Ideal Lineups

What is a team’s ideal lineup? For each squad the ideal lineup is what they would utilize if there were no injuries, suspensions or international duty. When comparing ideal lineups with actual lineups, positions were ignored if a player moved around (e.g., starting Clint Dempsey at striker instead of attacking midfielder). Salary was given some weight in choosing an ideal lineup, but some TAM players were left on the bench as well as players with low salaries starting over those with higher. Over the nine matches a team has a total of 99 ideal starts.

Sounders: Frei; Leerdam, Torres, Marshall, Francis; Alonso, Roldan; Lodeiro, Dempsey, Rodriguez; Morris (4-2-3-1)

Sporting KC: Melia; Zusi, Opara, Besler, Medranda; Gutierrez, Sanchez, Espinoza; Croizet, Shelton, Russell (4-3-3)

Atlanta United: Guzan; Escobar, Gonzalez Pirez, Parkhurst; Gressel, Nagbe, Larentowicz, Garza; Almiron; Barco, Martinez (3-4-1-2)

Toronto FC: Bono; Van Der Wiel, Mavinga, Zavaleta, Morrow; Bradley, Vazquez, Aketxe, Osorio; Giovinco, Altidore (4-4-2)

Seattle and Toronto have the fewest ideal starts, while Atlanta and Kansas City have combined for only 15 ideal starts missed due to injury or suspension.

Ideal vs Actual Starts

Team Ideal Starts Injury Suspension Coach's Choice
Team Ideal Starts Injury Suspension Coach's Choice
SEA 50 33 5 11
SKC 86 5 0 8
ATL 83 9 1 6
TOR 51 22 0 26

Seattle has had a third of all ideal starts missed due to injury. The number could be higher, but if a player was available off the bench they are considered a coach’s choice — for example, Victor Rodriguez and Chad Marshall each made the bench when they really weren’t able to sub in. Similarly, Dempsey and Osvaldo Alonso have made the bench but were unable to start due to fatigue.

Toronto has the ability to gripe a bit as they have missed two entire lineups due to injury, but their number of coach’s decisions is more than the other three teams combined. Greg Vanney heavily rotated his squad, including loaning in USL players, during Champions League play, and the team essentially threw away the two league matches that were not moved between their CCL games. TFC had two matches where only one ideal starter, Ager Aketxe, played. Those two games combined for only five ideal starts missed due to injury, meaning that 17 of the 26 coach’s decisions were from their matches on 4/14 and 4/21, against Colorado and Houston, respectively.

Sporting Kansas City and Atlanta United have escaped relatively unscathed thus far, with the majority of injuries being new DP signings. Felipe Gutierrez and Ezequiel Barco have combined for eight of the 14 ideal starts missed for both teams. It turns out being healthy does make a difference.

DP/TAM Injuries

So what if we ignore the contribution of ideal starters who are not as impactful? Does starting Nouhou over Waylon Francis really make a difference? If Atlanta can’t field Franco Escobar, is starting Chris McCann at CB really a difference? The answer in these two cases is that it is likely not a significant difference, but missing your DP and TAM players can make a large difference, even if they are bench contributors like Wolff or Hector Villalba.

DP/TAM Injuries

Team DP Injuries TAM Injuries DP/TAM Suspensions
Team DP Injuries TAM Injuries DP/TAM Suspensions
SEA 10 16 3
SKC 3 2 0
ATL 5 3 1
TOR 5 7 0

Seattle is miles beyond the other three teams in matches missed by high pay players. Seattle has played one match without a single DP available and has only played one match with all three starting (at LAFC). In the cases of Seattle and Atlanta, not all of the TAM players missing are ideal starters, but they are impact subs or players who can replace an ideal starter without a significant downgrade. These are the players who are meant to be improving the quality of the league, and Seattle has been without them due to injury more than the other three clubs combined. If it feels like the Sounder are perpetually injured this year, it is because they are.

Squad Consistency

Another key to winning squads is the ability to be consistent, not just in results and form but being able to physically play the same players each game. A team’s goal is to start the same ideal XI every match, and if there are changes, it should involve only changing one or two players due to form. Seattle is among only four teams to not start the same lineup in consecutive matches yet this year. The Sounders have used 21 different starters, among whom only one has fewer than two starts. Toronto has 27 different starters, but six have only started one match, with three of them being players in the 18 only for the Colorado and Houston matches while Toronto was dealing with CCL fixture congestion. Toronto is seeing the negative impacts of this more than any other club, with only one player appearing in all nine matches, while Seattle has four. Atlanta and Sporting Kansas City each have eight players who have appeared in all nine matches, six of whom have started each game for their respective clubs.

Toronto does have the benefit that they had consistency with CCL lineups that Seattle was unable to match. Toronto has also benefited from getting some of their ideal players back at the end of the nine matches, such as Chris Mavinga, while Seattle has continued to pick up more injuries.

Compared to the first nine games of 2017, Seattle is in even worse shape. In 2017, the Sounders only started 16 different players in that stretch, and not a single player who made a start had fewer than two. Henry Wingo, the only player to appear who did not start a match, made seven substitute appearances. Seattle had eight players appear in all nine matches, double their 2018 total, with two more appearing in eight of the nine. Of the eight players, seven were ideal starters in 2017. In 2018, only two of the four to play in every match are ideal starters (Stefan Frei and Cristian Roldan). Seattle was also able to repeat their lineup in consecutive matches once in the first nine games of 2017.

Sounders Appearances 2017-2018

2018 Starts Subs Total 2017 Starts Subs Total
2018 Starts Subs Total 2017 Starts Subs Total
Frei 9 0 9 Frei 9 0 9
Svensson 9 0 9 Jones 9 0 9
Roldan 9 0 9 Alonso 9 0 9
Wolff 4 5 9 Roldan 9 0 9
Nouhou 7 1 8 Dempsey 8 1 9
A. Roldan 5 3 8 Lodeiro 9 0 9
Bruin 7 0 7 Morris 9 0 9
Leerdam 6 1 7 Svensson 8 1 9
Marshall 7 0 7 Bruin 3 5 8
Delem 3 2 5 Shipp 5 3 8
Torres 5 0 5 Wingo 0 7 7
Lodeiro 5 0 5 Torres 4 1 5
Bwana 4 3 7 Marshall 5 0 5
Dempsey 4 1 5 Fernandez 2 3 5
McCrary 2 2 4 Delem 4 1 5
Alonso 3 1 4 Fisher 3 1 4
Kim 3 1 4 Alfaro 3 1 4
Wingo 1 3 4
Alfaro 2 0 2
Shipp 2 0 2
Francis 2 0 2
Neagle 0 3 3

Sporting Kansas City and Atlanta in 2017 were even better than 2018 as well. SKC used only 16 total players and started only 12 over their first nine games. Benny Feilhaber missed two matches and Soony Saad started in his place for those. Sporting had 10 players feature in all nine and they each started every match. In the nine matches, SKC ran out the same lineup for three consecutive matches, switched with Feilhaber out and played the same for the next two, and then reverted to their original lineup with Feilhaber back for the final four. Atlanta, meanwhile, was roughly the same with 16 starters used as Tata Martino tinkered with his midfield and then saw Josef Martinez go down with a foot injury. Martino managed to use only 20 players, and while he did not repeat a lineup, he did have the same keeper and backline for all nine matches.

The Sounders are performing poorly compared to 2017 and even worse compared to Atlanta and SKC. While Seattle should be playing better, the inability to field players consistently is definitely making an impact.

Where do we go from here? Well, the good news is that Seattle is almost out of players to get injured. Jokes aside, only one player from the four who have played every match, Gustav Svensson, is leaving for the World Cup. Torres and Lodeiro were injured and were probably going to miss more matches regardless. Dempsey is healthy. Alonso will be healthy soon. TAM signing Wolff Eikrem has played in every MLS match so far and will probably continue to do so. The team has their healthy players and it is up to them to find a way to score goals.

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