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Four things we need to learn in preseason for Sounders to compete for Supporters’ Shield

After a fourth-place finish in 2018, this is what needs to go right in 2019 for Seattle to take the regular-season trophy.

Sounders win Supporters’ Shield

Over the last five years it’s taken 1.90 points per game (on average) to take the Supporters’ Shield. When the Seattle Sounders last won it, they finished with 1.88 ppg. Last season, despite the horrendous start, they surged in the second half, finishing with 1.74, enough to be one point off of the Shield when FC Dallas won in 2016 and when New York Red Bulls won in 2015 (although quite a bit behind the pace set by the last two winners). The Shield is an attainable target.

As a team routinely in the top third of the standings, a roster that is fairly settled and the record-setting performance of summer-fall 2018, the Sounders faithful should look at that Shield and want it back. It is a path to continental glory (where Seattle is again among the leaders in MLS success).

But there are some significant questions about the roster. When preseason starts on Jan. 22, these are the questions that Brian Schmetzer & Co. will need to sort out:

Nouhou vs. Brad Smith

This could be the defining decision for not just Schmetzer, but with cascading impacts on the decisions that GM Garth Lagerwey can make in the summer and years beyond. Brad Smith is back. Bournemouth did not pick up his recall option. The positional battle pits a fringe EPL talent while the other is connected to Ligue 1 in France. Both are capable of starting in MLS.

Smith offers a bit more in attack, with less defense. Nouhou’s defensive ability is extraordinary, while his passing in the attack is neutral or negative. Neither is what Schmetzer and Lagerwey dream of at the position.

Complicating the tough decision about who is best for the start of the season, or how to manage the rotation is the fact that Smith’s loan is up in the summer. If he wins the role, will Nouhou be able to finish out the season? Will Nouhou get signed away anyway? Will Smith perform at a level that the Sounders want to keep a high-TAM player on their roster at left back?

This preseason offers insight not just into how the two play with those around them, but the direction of the club for 2020 as well. This set of decisions is not just about who gets Seattle the most wins in March, April and May (please let there be lots of those).

It is about the ability to have the organization demonstrate that a player plucked from the USL roster can earn their way to MLS and beyond and/or about MLS having the salary structure now that it can appeal to fringe EPL talents just to be depth pieces.

Nouhou vs. Smith is a wonderfully difficult decision point as it impacts the USL side’s recruiting efforts, VP of Soccer Chris Henderson’s scouting trips, Lagerwey’s roster structure and budget, and Schmetzer’s ability to win games. It is not merely an on-field decision.

It is the thing that we and the club need to learn most.

How good can Jordan Morris be?

The offense without Jordan Morris wound up being very good, at least in the second half. The duo of Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz was essentially on par with the MVP duo of Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron in terms of production per 90 minutes. Add in Will Bruin’s 9 goals a year as a Sounder, Victor Rodriguez’s 7 goals and 7 assists in what would be a full season with 26 appearances, Cristian Roldan’s 4 goals and 9 assists and there’s real reason to believe that the 13th best offense in the league in 2018 (raw goals for) is in line for a significant boost just because they will have a full season of Ruidíaz.

But there’s another reason to think the offense will improve — Jordan Morris is a better attacker than Harry Shipp and the rest of the rotationals.

But he has to do it. If Jordan performs on the field like he did in his Rookie of the Year campaign, then the Sounders would likely have one of the more diverse attacks in the league. Between Raul, Nico, Jordan, Will and Victor there is plenty of talent that could hit at least 10 goals.

Jordan Morris is someone who has done that.

Over the next few weeks we will see what his speed looks like; whether his hold-up play maintained over the absence; if he improved his left foot; and how well he’ll link up with the talented Ruidiaz when both are charging right up the gut. If all of those are positives, Morris is really, truly back and an option not just for the Sounders, but the USMNT.

There’s also a chance we don’t see the improvement, but even without the RoY-quality Morris the attack is strong. It’s just that with him it rivals any in the league.

Will Schmetzer bust out a new formation?

One thing Morris offers Brian Schmetzer is role flexibility. Between Jordan being a better forward than winger and the team having three starting-quality centerbacks the First Team could see more five-back sets, or as it will play more of a 3-4-1-2. While this would bench either Rodriguez or Gustav Svensson it puts Jordan next to Raul. It’s not a defensive tactic, but a way to insert even more into the attack.

Seattle could also experiment with a diamond. This doesn’t get Torres onto the pitch, but would again have Raul and Jordan as dual threats at forward. Slot Victor Rodriguez into the 10 with two creative and defensive 8s in Nico and Cristian and the diamond suits a lot of the attacking talent. It’s also a formation the Sounders could switch into midgame as it could utilize the same personnel as their preferred 4-2-3-1.

You should expect to see Schmetzer experiment with these formations. It could wind up like 2018’s diamond experiment that essentially never saw the field, but if it works one of these would be an interesting alternate to the 4-2-3-1 that has defined Schmetzer’s tenure so far.

Who will be the next Jordy Delem?

Searching for a Nouhou quality player to step up from S2-be-named is probably folly. But Jordy Delem offers another example of what the USL side can do for the organization. Delem has earned 800 minutes a year with essentially 10 starts and 5 sub appearances. The defensive mid/centerback/right back cut his teeth down at Starfire and should be an example of the type of rotational minutes the current crop can earn.

There are two who are most likely to make that step in 2019 — Denso Ulysse and Sam Rogers.

Ulysse offers game-changing speed on the right, from the fullback spot. He’s a tidy dribbler who can cut in, but doesn’t have a good shot. If his crossing can improve, the Haitian can challenge McCrary for the backup spot. In 2018 Denso made second-team all-USL and was 7th on the 20 under 20.

Rogers fought illness and injury in 2018, but still was in the 20 under 20 list, is a regular invitee to the United States U20 roster that will go to that level’s World Cup this summer. The ball-control centerback (similar to Kim) passes quite well, can dribble and has the frame to succeed. He just needs more time to learn the position he’s only played for a few dozen appearances (he was primarily a defensive midfielder at the academy level). If Seattle shifts to a three-back set more frequently there will be minutes for a fifth CB and Rogers may have that quality now.

There’s room on the backend of the roster. If one of Tacoma’s talents earns that spot over the three draftees and the inevitable trialists that is another demonstration about the success of the USL project.

Things that we don’t need to learn include the defense — Stefan Frei, Chad Marshall, Kim Kee-hee, Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan can hold that down. Especially if their backups are Torres, Campell and Delem. We do need to learn about Damian Roden’s full offseason, but the lack of access while they are on the road means that we will get trailing indicators on health. It would be nice to start healthy.

Preseason starts Tuesday with announced games in Tucson on Feb. 9, 13 and 16. Seattle then hosts Nacional of Uruguay on Feb. 20 at CenturyLink Field as part of the season-ticket package. Match Day 1 of 2019 sees FC Cincinnati come to Seattle to open their expansion season.