TUKWILA, Wash. — Just about every other MLS team is well into offseason mode, having long since bowed out of the MLS Cup playoffs, if they made them at all. The Seattle Sounders had the first-world problem of a late start to their postseason, what with competing — and winning — MLS Cup. But with all of the fanfare and parades finally out of the way, the Sounders are now focused on the 2020 season.
That said, there was one last bit of 2019 business in the form of the annual postseason press conference. Coach Brian Schmetzer and General Manager Garth Lagerwey checked that off the to-do list Wednesday afternoon at Starfire, where they looked back on the 2019 season and ahead to 2020.
Learning from the mistakes of the past, and of others
Both Lagerwey and Schmetzer started off the press conference talking about not repeating the mistakes from their previous MLS Cup victory, or from the issues teams like Sporting Kansas City and Toronto FC had in pursuing Concacaf Champions League in the past two seasons. Coming off the somewhat surprising MLS Cup victory over Toronto FC in 2016 — Schmetzer called that year a “blur” — the 2017 Sounders got off to a rough start, though the team was able to turn the season around and make it to MLS Cup. “I felt we started 2017 a little bit complacent,” Schmetzer said. “I don’t want that to happen again.”
For his part, Lagerwey is wary of the effects pursuing Champions League can have on the team’s ability to compete in the regular season. “It would be hubris[tic] of us to not have learned anything from Toronto’s experience in 2018 or Kansas City experience in 2019 where they go on deep Champion’s Leagues runs and miss the playoffs.
“Overall it might make us a little bit more conservative in our decision-making.”
Svensson’s desire to return was a pleasant surprise
Among the Sounders returning for the 2020 season, Garth indicated that retaining Gustav Svensson was a bit unexpected. Conventional wisdom had been that the Swedish defender had wanted to return to Europe, but apparently that wasn’t the case. “We had thought last year was probably Gustav’s last year,” Lagerwey said. “Gustav came to me and said ‘I’d like to stay’ so it was pretty easy to wrap that one up.”
Other option pickups decisions were about maintaining depth and promise
Lagerwey said that decision to pick up the options of players like Handwalla Bwana and Jordy Delem were about continued development and maintaining continuity for Champions League. “Bwana is a good young player, very talented,” Lagerwey said. “Delem is an unsung hero for us, a real contributor.”
Declining player options doesn’t mean the Sounders don’t want the players back
Among the player options who were not picked up, Roman Torres was the most ntable. A hero for the Sounders in 2016, and a solid contributor down the stretch in 2019, the Panamanian center back had his hefty player option (in excess of $750,000) declined for 2020. That said, getting Torres back for next year is a priority for the Sounders — at the right price. “When we decline an option, all we’re saying is ‘we’re not willing to pay this price that’s on paper, but there may be a mutually agreeable price upon which we would welcome you back,’” Lagerwey said. Complicating matters is the fact that the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on Jan. 31, 2020. “We don’t know the salary cap, so that makes for some interesting conversations,” Lagerwey said.
One player who likely won’t be back is MLS Cup MVP Victor Rodriguez
Midfielder Victor Rodriguez had a star-crossed tenure with the Sounders. Supremely effective when healthy, Rodriguez was never able to get fully fit for an extended period, suffering from myriad injures over his 2.5 years with the Sounders. Complicating factors were some family issues the Spanish midfielder was dealing with. Based on Lagerwey’s comments and the fact the Sounders did not pick up his option, it seems likely that Rodriguez will not return. “We need to do the right thing for his family,” Lagerwey said. “If he gets a resolution that is best for his family, that’s what we’re going to do. We love Victor absolutely. ”
Rodriguez’s replacement could come from within
Losing a player of Rodriguez’s skill will be difficult to replace, but the Sounders may be looking to a current player to fill that role on the right wing at least in the short term. “The good news is we have an internal solution to the Victor thing,” Lagerwey said. “Cristian Roldan played a bunch at right wing, and we’ve used him at right wing this year, and he’s played right wing for the national team. So we look at that as an option.”
Centerback is a bit of a concern
With the Sounders declining the contract options of Jonathan Campbell and Roman Torres’, and Kim Kee Hee out of contract, it’s fair to say centerback is the area where the Sounders will likely focus their energy, with Xavier Arreaga the only centerback under contract. “We obviously need more than one centerback,” Lagerwey said. “We’re talking to Roman, we’re talking to Kim, I think there is still something that could happen there.”
It may not be “goodbye” but it’s “see you later” for Brad Smith
Brad Smith was protected by the Sounders in the Expansion Draft, but he is out of contract with the Sounders as of Dec. 31, when his rights revert to Bournemouth. By protecting him, the Sounders retain his rights should he want to return to MLS. “We think he’s a player that’s going to have value in MLS,” Lagerwey said. “Brad’s 25 years old, so whether it’s next year or five years from now, maybe holding onto those rights might be something that is of value long term.”
“Pump the brakes” on Trey Muse
With Brian Meredith being selected by Inter Miami in the Expansion Draft, the Sounders have the need for another goalkeeper on the first team roster. The natural thought seems to lead to Trey Muse, who signed with the Sounders as a Homegrown Player in 2019 and had an up-and-down year with Tacoma Defiance. However, Schmetzer sought to take some of the focus — and pressure — off of the young goalkeeper. “I know he’s going to develop, but the kid’s still young,” Schmetzer said. “We can’t push Trey too much in the spotlight if he’s not ready. Once he’s ready, he’s going to get his chance. The games down in Defiance were really good for Trey.”
“We are going to play more games with certainty,” Lagerwey said. “I don’t know if Stef Frei is going to play 44 times for us next year. We need somebody who’s going to step in that role and have some experience.”
Nico Lodeiro isn’t going anywhere — for now
In what seems to be an annual right of passage, rumors of Nico Lodeiro being sought after by other clubs have popped up. While there is nothing the Sounders can do about these stories, Lagerwey did not indicate he was particularly worried about losing the Uruguayan midfielder. “The good news is we have really good players,” Lagerway said. “The bad news is when you have really good players, everyone wants them.
“When I met with Nico at the end of the season, he said wanted to be in Seattle and play for the Sounders and that’s good enough for me.”
The Sounders should have some financial flexibility
The good news with the potential loss of Rodriguez, Torres and Kim is that the Sounders will have the means to replace them. All three were on Targeted Allocation Money contracts (more than $538,000 but less than $1.5 million), which the team can now use in different areas. “They were all on big numbers,” Lagerwey said. “Victor [was] over a million dollars, Roman was on a big number, Kim was on a big number. That means we have the resources to replace those players if they don’t come back.”
The Sounders are still working on Damien Roden’s replacement
The Sounders are also looking for a new strength and conditioning coach, as Damien Roden announced he was leaving the Sounders to head back to England over the summer. The Sounders didn’t have much of an update, other than to say they’re still looking. “We’ve talked to a bunch of people, I think there’s a potential internal solution,” Lagerwey said. “We’ll get it done.”
Expectations for Defiance were probably set too high
Speaking of lessons learned, Lagerwey conceded he got out in front of his skis in proclaiming that the Defiance were going to compete for a playoff spot in the USL Championship in 2019. Thus he set to manage expectations ahead of 2020, though the Defiance performed well down the stretch of the 2019 season. “I got ahead of myself in terms of some of the things I said,” Lagerwey said. “We were not ready to compete for the playoffs and I do think we continue to evolve that group in terms of what is the balance between experienced players and young players.
“I think the nuance we’ve arrived at is certain positions matter more than others in terms of where you have experience down there and how those players can help other players.”
New length of MLS offseason will test teams for different reasons
While The CBA mandates a six-week break between the offseason and the start of preseason, when MLS changed the postseason schedule — moving the playoffs up a month — it meant the offseason for teams who missed the playoffs is now more than 100 days. For the Sounders, it’s not so much of a problem given they advanced through MLS Cup. However Schmetzer indicated that other coaches have told him the longer offseason is a problem. “I was talking to Ezra Hendrickson who is in Columbus and they didn’t make the playoffs, and they were struggling,” Schmetzer said. “It’s a long break for teams who didn’t make the playoffs. It’s way too long. I feel for those guys, if your team didn’t make the playoffs.
“There is some concern about how do we dial in [to the start of the new season]. Is it too long, is it too short? With Dec. 10 being MLS Cup, that was really too short. Now is it too long? I don’t know yet.”