The CBA Looms Over Everything
Before we can have any sort of reasonable discussion on what the offseason holds for the Sounders, we need to acknowledge that it's possible there won't be a 2020 season. The negotiations for the MLS collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between ownership and the MLS Player's Association (MLSPA) is ongoing. It's unlikely we'll see the whole 2020 season sacrificed but with the next season supposedly starting at the end of February, there's only three months to resolve the issue and it's possible some games won't get played or we may have a congest schedule if negotiations go too long. The players demands are fairly reasonable, you can read about them here. The biggest points for the purpose of our offseason is the desire to eliminate targeted allocation money (TAM) and generally simplify the rules of player acquisition and pay and expanded free agency. To that end, I'm going to make a few assumptions that I feel are reasonable, that the salary cap will increase, the minimum salary spend for teams will increase, the designated player rule will stick around (and remain at 3) and that something equivalent to a TAM contracts for players will continue to exist (for simplicity, I'm going to still call them TAM players).
A Victor-sized Hole in the Offense
It sounds like Victor Rodriguez is probably heading back to Spain, which isn't surprising as his wife and young daughter are in Spain due to some sort of very serious medical issues for his daughter. Even if he sticks around though, there are serious questions about his health and whether the Sounders can rely upon him. If MLS Cup taught us anything about this team, it should show that this system really requires a full set of skilled offensive midfielders to thrive. Joevin Jones did okay as a converted, inverted right winger and even looked genuinely great at times, but realistically he's much better as a let back and with Brad Smith possibly returning to England Jones is the presumptive starting left back if Smith leaves. Harry Shipp typically does well as long as the other offensive pieces are in place and Handwalla Bwana has potential, but neither seem to cut it as starters when Victor has been out of the lineup; it's also possible Shipp could be with a different team next season (more on this later). So I think the biggest thing we need to sort out is finding a new offensive midfield starter.
So what sort of midfielder should the Sounders look for? Well Rodriguez gives us a pretty good prototype to target, someone good with the ball at their feet with good passing skills and decent speed; such a target player is unlikely to be cheap, but if Rodriguez is gone (as I think he will be) then the Sounders have a spare designated player spot. If Rodriguez does come back, and at the same pay, then things get more complicated for having an insurance plan in case Rodriguez goes down with a major injury again. Finding someone as good as Rodriguez without spending Rodriguez-level money would be incredibly unlikely, at the very least you're looking at a TAM player to come close; instead you'd have to find a replacement that is either young and in need o development or that is only good at one of the things Rodriguez does so well. Figuring out the next player for our offensive midfield should be our first priority.
Shallow Depth in Center Back
It's likely that Roman Torres won't be a Sounder next year for a number of reasons. For one, due to his age, injury history and recent substance issues (which, to be clear, he states was due to a shady supplement) if I'm Garth Lagerwey I'm offering Torres a contract but a much smaller one. Millionairos, Torres' former club, has already offered up some sort of contract and I don't think the Sounders will beat it. That's a problem for the Sounders though as it leaves us with only three true center backs, presumptive starters Xavier Arreaga and Kim Kee-Hee with back up Jonathan Campbell. Yes, Svensson and Saad Abdul-Salaam (assuming he's still with us, more below) can slot in at center back, it's probably better to just have 4 center backs. So the Sounders will either need to bring up a young player from Tacoma Defiance or go searching for a serviceable backup center back. This isn't really all that difficult, and I don't think there's any question Lagerwey will get it done, it's just something to keep an eye on.
Who Scores When Raul Is Away?
This isn't so much an acquisition problem as it is a tactical question. If Raul is injured or away with the Peruvian national team, who can we rely on to score goals? Will Bruin and Luis Silva are perhaps the first choices, though both could leave the team this year; however there are some questions if either of those are the backup starter at striker. Will Bruin, is coming off of a serious injury and it's possible he simply won't be the same player. Silva, meanwhile is more of a false 9 and maybe isn't a direct replacement for Raul, instead he's more of a second forward to bring on when the Sounders need a goal. Alfonso Ocamp-Chaves is e young players with potential, but we probably don't want to put all of the burden of scoring goals on them right away. Justin Dhillon is youngish but hasn't really shown that he's on the level of MLS professionalism yet. Personally, I think the second striker job is Will Bruin's to lose, assuming he's still with us next year.
Wolves At the Door
And here we come to one of the biggest questions of the offseason, who will the Sounders lose? We have the expansion draft coming up and there are some likely targets dangling out there. Will Bruin, Harry Shipp, Saad Abdul-Salaam and Luis Silva are all MLS veterans that could slot into an expansion team and provide some quality right away. Of the four mentioned above, I think Harry Shipp and Saad Abdul-Salaam are most likely to go. Will Bruin is a TAM player and is coming off a serious injury, meanwhile Luis Silva has been away from the league for a while. Beyond the expansion draft, Rodriguez and Smith are likely heading back to Europe for very different reasons; I already talked about both of their positions (though Smith only in passing); I think we'll be just fine with Jones at left back, but probably need a replacement for Rodriguez.
However, there is one fly in the ointment at left back, for the last few windows there have been rumors that Nouhou may be heading overseas, particularly to France. With Joevin Jones back it's more clear than ever that there isn't a clear path to Nouhou being the starting left back for the Sounders, it's possible that is the nudge needed to send him out the door; if Nouhou leaves then we're in the market for a new left back. Finding a high quality left back backup is difficult and finding one of Nouhou's quality at Nouhou's price is going to be particularly difficult. Now, it is possible that Brad Smith is coming back, the Sounders did mark him as "protected" in the expansion draft, but that doesn't mean he's guaranteed to be back.
There are almost certainly a few players that will be out the door that I haven't mentioned yet, but it's difficult to predict who exactly will be leaving. Harry Shipp is a possibility even if he isn't selected in the expansion draft, for example as I believe he's out of contract. Did I miss someone? Let me know below.
Outlook for 2020
The issues the Sounders face are not small, but the core should all be back next year except for Victor Rodriguez and Roman Torres. There are big questions at depth, but ultimately I'm pretty optimistic about next season. So what do you think? How do you think next season will turn out?