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Who are the Sounders’ difference makers?

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Our staff identified several decent candidates for potential playoff x-factors.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Seattle Sounders this year is that they are a hard team to figure out. Just when you think they are rounding into form, they drop a match you figure should be a gimme. Just when you give them up for dead, they roar back to life. With that in mind, we asked our contributors to tell us what they think the potential x-factor is that could push the Sounders to a second MLS Cup.

Victor Rodriguez’s health

Let’s start with an obvious one. If you had asked this question at the start of the year, you’d probably have said “Victor Rodriguez’s health.” If you’d asked it during the summer break, you’d have probably said “Victor Rodriguez’s health.” So if we’re asking it again, well, the answer is probably the same. Rodriguez might not be the Sounders’ best player or even the most influential, but he’s the one whose availability has the most potential to lift their chances of winning MLS Cup from “sure, why not?” to “yes, absolutely.” Rodriguez understands space as well as anyone in the league and is one of the few players who has the skills to fully exploit it. The Sounders’ main offensive cogs are reasonably dangerous without him, but are downright elite when he joins the party. If he’s ready to go, watch out. - Jeremiah Oshan

Emerald City Supporters (aka home support)

The Sounders had a top-5 home advantage this year — their 11-2-3 record is tied for their second best home record ever — which likely will be ratcheted up for the playoffs, during which they are 12-2-3 at CenturyLink Field all-time. Leading that advantage is the passion of ECS. The supporters have had an especially emotional year, with ECS leading various protests against fascism and racism including a 33-minute silent protest in Portland and a halftime walkout when one of its leaders was ejected from the match for flying an anti-fascist flag. That has been settled in the supporters’ favor after tiring work and emotional labor on their part. Their passion for the team has never wavered, so expect them to unleash those emotions on Saturday to lead the crowd in some of the loudest chants of the season. Even though crowds tend to be smaller, the fans that are there get noticeably louder in the playoffs, so expect them to chant along throughout the match. Dallas is not a good road team, earning fewer points on the road than the Rapids, SKC and Whitecaps and the same amount of points as Cincinnati. I would not expect that to change with ECS leading a raucous crowd in a home elimination match. - agtk

Cristian Roldan’s ability to lock down midfield

When Seattle faces FC Dallas on Saturday, Cristian Roldan is going to be critical to the team’s success on both sides of the ball. His connection with Jordan Morris provides a key to unlocking one of Seattle’s most dangerous players, as Roldan is often one of the only players looking to play the ball over defenses and into space for Morris to run onto. If Roldan lines up alongside Gustav Svensson, he’ll likely be tasked with keeping an eye on Paxton Pomykal while also helping the Sounders move the ball through the midfield. Roldan is a leader on this team, and can be expected to step up in big games. - Tim Foss

Roman Torres’ physicality

If the Sounders are going to go deep in the playoffs this year, they’ll need some huge performances from their much maligned centerback. The pairing of Kim Kee-hee and Xavier Arreaga has looked shaky at best headed down the stretch, with Arreaga picking up four yellow cards in his last two starts. FC Dallas’ Zdeněk Ondrášek has been on a tear lately, but I think Torres’ physicality can handle him. In Torres’ 10 post-Chad Marshall retirement starts, the Sounders have conceded just 10 goals. In the other 14 matches during that time, the Sounders have allowed 26 goals. There are obviously other variables but that’s a difference of .85 goals per game. The past is the past, and who knows what the future holds for Torres, but in the present this team needs his ability and leadership on the backline. The only question is which centerback does he replace? - Mark Kastner

The left back conundrum

Joevin Jones and Brad Smith are going to be the X-factors. If all the wingers are healthy, Joevin will likely not be a starter, unless he bumps Brad Smith from LB. Both of them offer similar things at left back. Both provide speed, strong overlapping runs, and questionable 1v1 defending. Jones’ crosses are more across the board, either very good or very bad, while Smith seems to get a little over-excited before sending in a ball leading to a few less strong crosses. If Victor Rodriguez can’t go, or any other of the others across the attacking band, then the two may be deployed together on the left. As a midfielder, Jones is not strong at making the advanced runs unless they are the late run, which is something he can’t do as a midfielder. So how can they make everything happen?

Brian Schmetzer loves to play Joevin, he will get his minutes. He will be partnered with Smith on the left wing late in games. When Joevin subs in, he will take on a tired fullback that was already slower than Joevin. The question is what does Joevin do in that position? Since coming back his quality has been lacking but he has had some great moments. Which Joevin shows up when the club needs him? If Joevin can bottle that greatness and use it to exploit a tired defense in the final twenty, Seattle should find multiple late goals to finish off their opponents.

Brad Smith will be a stalwart at LB and just needs to bomb forward without getting burned. He’s done that most of the season, if he stays consistent, then Seattle will have very little problems. If he can tire the right wing and back before Joevin subs on, he opens the door for a destructive tandem. As for Nouhou, I love Nouhou. He is great defensively, but will he play is a question? Overall, Nouhou’s contributions are likely just off the bench for late defense to hold onto a win, a great place for him. So the question is, what Joevin Jones subs on?- Jacob Landsberg

Brian Schmetzer

Brian Schmetzer has demonstrated this season that he can shift tactics to match opponents, but he also has left fans frustrated at times due to where he puts players, when he chooses to make subs, or how his team approaches defending or their attack.

Schmetzer has the opportunity to prove doubters wrong this postseason, and the new playoff structure might put a different kind of pressure on him. Gone are the days of away goals — which allowed teams to bunker — and home and home battles. Hello, single-match elimination.

I think the Sounders playoff chances are going to come down to tactics and substitute decisions. Will the Sounders come out with the right game plan to take down their opponents? Will Schmetzer sub at the right time — and with the right players — to either maintain momentum or change the game? At this point, we know what the team is capable of when individuals are playing at their best. Schmetzer now has his chance to shine. - Susie

Jordan Morris!

How about my guy, Jordan Morris? The Comeback Player of the Year nominee will play a big role in deciding how far the Sounders will go in the playoffs. The team is 8-1-1 when Jordan has a goal or an assist, and he has a history of scoring big goals and plenty of game winners. Jordan is coming off of national team duty, where he had 1 goal and 3 assists in two matches. Historically, Morris has elevated his level of play after a stint with the USMNT, which should mean good things for his playoff form. If you’re still questioning why our guy, Jordan Morris, will dictate the playoffs for the Sounders, consider that he’s had a more productive season than the likes of DC’s Wayne Rooney, LAFC’s Diego Rossi, Minnesota’s Darwin Quintero, Atlanta’s Tito Villalba, and Portland’s Sebastian Blanco. Jordan Morris isn’t our rookie kid anymore, he can hold his own with the best attacking players in the league. -Bread