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Breaking down the Sounders depth chart

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Here’s how things stand going into the season opener.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

At the top end of the Seattle Sounders’ depth chart there are few, if any, questions. Barring a huge surprise, the starting lineup on Saturday against FC Cincinnati will include nine of the 11 players who started against the San Jose Earthquakes in the 2018 regular-season finale. The only two changes are players who were on that roster, just not healthy: Jordan Morris and Brad Smith.

But after the starting XI, the depth chart gets a bit murkier. Let’s look at each position:

Goalkeeper

Starter: Stefan Frei is the unquestioned starter. No goalkeeper over the past few years has been better than him, postseason awards withstanding, and he’s coming off what has to be considered one of the best statistical seasons in MLS history. That the United States national team apparently has no need for the 32-year-old is their loss and hopefully our gain.

Backup: For now, it’s Bryan Meredith. The veteran goalkeeper has been perfectly fine when called upon and is, by all accounts, a wonderful guy to have on the team. No one is banging down his door to offer him a starting spot, though, and it seems like he’s just sort of serving this role while Trey Muse gains experience.

Depth: As mentioned, Muse is just sort of biding his time and at 19 years old there really should be no rush. That said, he was the top American amateur last year and most seem to expect very good things out of him. He’ll likely get the bulk of the minutes with Tacoma Defiance and might even be starting games for the United States at the U20 World Cup in May.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Left back

Starter: Smith is almost certainly going to start the season opener, so he gets this spot for now. It should be said he also started all six games in which he was healthy last year, so the Sounders coaches do seem to prefer him. He’s a smooth passer and he makes some good runs. His defense is a little suspect, though, and if he’s not piling up key passes, he’s probably not going remain the starter.

Backup: Nouhou opened and closed last season as the starter, proving himself a shutdown defender and more capable in the attack than he often gets credit for. He’s also a player who appears to have a decent transfer market building around him, who helped the Sounders go 11-0-3 in his last 14 starts of the regular season. So why isn’t he the starter now? Missing two weeks of training camp while clearing up a visa situation is probably the primary reason, but the coaching staff also harbors some doubts about his tendency to switch off at inopportune moments. If he can win back that trust, he could be the starter again.

Depth: As of now, there is no obvious third choice on the first team roster. That seemed to be Jordan McCrary’s spot, but he was waived. If the Sounders need to sign an emergency left back, Nick Hinds is probably the top candidate in Tacoma. He’s still more of an attacking threat, though, and not someone the Sounders seem ready to trust at the MLS level quite yet.

Right back

Starter: After showing himself to be arguably the top right back in MLS during his half season in 2017, Leerdam seemed to regress a bit last year. That was likely due to an ankle injury he suffered in the preseason and never full recovered from. Whatever the reason, he never quite looked himself and was less of an attacking threat. Still, he managed five assists, four of which came in the Sounders’ final eight games. If he’s healthy, it’s hard to see him losing the job anytime soon.

Backup: It’s not entirely clear, but it’s hard to imagine the Sounders signing Saad Abdul-Salaam if they didn’t at least see him as top backup. Abdul-Salaam is probably not as young as you might think (he’s 27) and his only productive season was in 2016 (six assists), but he’s clearly got some talent and physical tools. Don’t expect him to unseat Leerdam, but that doesn’t seem like a total impossibility.

Depth: Henry Wingo has officially been moved to right back and he’ll likely be a candidate to get minutes late in games when the Sounders are chasing goals, at least in the short term. He’s got the offensive game to be a MLS starter, the question is about his defense. It will also be interesting to see how much time he gets in Tacoma, where 20-year-old Denso Ulysse is considered to be a reasonably promising prospect.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Centerback

Starters: Chad Marshall and Kim Kee-hee were about as good of a pairing as any in MLS last year and barring injury, they’ll be given every chance to repeat that in 2019. Marshall was runner-up for MLS Defender of the Year while enjoying another stellar season at 34 years old. Kim got off to a bit of a slow start after signing right before the season, but was an absolute joy to watch as he chased attackers all over the field and even showed off some impressive ball-handling skills.

Backups: Román Torres clearly does not want to be riding the bench, but assuming he accepts his role as top backup, he’s as good a third-choice centerback as any in the league. Jonathan Campbell is probably the guy who starts alongside Torres in early-round U.S. Open Cup matches.

Depth: Abdul-Salaam is apparently being looked at as centerback depth, and there’s always the possibility that Gustav Svensson could be deputized there. Sam Rogers seemed to be a candidate to fill one of these spots but an injury at the U20 camp has kept him out of Sounders preseason. He’ll get healthy with Tacoma and potentially be in line for a call-up if the need arises. If you really want to impress your friends, mention that the Sounders are trying to convert Josh Atencio to centerback from defensive midfielder, where he was considered a highly technical prospect.

Defensive midfielder

Starters: Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson will lock down the defensive midfield as they’ve done with regularity over the past two seasons. The only difference is that this will be the primary look, as opposed to one the Sounders only employed when Osvaldo Alonso was unavailable. Neither player offers an exact analogy to Alonso — who was both a classic destroyer and someone capable of breaking lines with through balls — but there’s plenty of reason to think that the pairing can compensate holistically. Svensson will likely be the more stay-at-home defensive player — allowing the Sounders to drop into a virtual three-back set when the outside backs press forward — while Roldan will likely have more of a free role and roam into the attack when appropriate.

Backups: Jordy Delem is the one most likely to get minutes if one of Svensson or Roldan are unavailable or needed elsewhere on the field. The Sounders were 4-4-2 in his 10 starts last year, but were 4-0-2 in his last six when he was surrounded by closer-to-first-choice teammates. As long as he’s allowed to be more of a pure defensive presence — like when he basically man-marked Miguel Almiron out of the game in July — he’s a perfectly fine option.

Depth: Alex Roldan got most of his preseason minutes playing as a defensive midfielder, so the assumption is that he’ll be used that way this year. He was billed as the more offensive-minded of the Roldan brothers when he signed, but his game at the MLS level does seem more suited for this role. This is also the spot 15-year-old Danny Leyva appears destined to play at the MLS level. He’ll likely start the season in Tacoma — even if he signs a First Team deal — but don’t be at all surprised to see him make his MLS debut this year.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Left midfielder

Starter: If you’re looking for a potential breakout performance on this roster, Victor Rodriguez might be the best candidate. Largely due to the fact that he seems to be constantly battling some sort of injury, Rodriguez has been a bit of a forgotten man. But he quietly notched five goals and six assists in less than 1,300 minutes last year. If he’s able to maintain that sort of production over more like 2,500 minutes, he’ll probably be among the top 5 most productive midfielders in the league.

Backup: Handwalla Bwana seems to be the top option off the bench and could muscle his way into some significant minutes if Rodriguez can’t stay healthy. Bwana’s own injuries limited him to less than 500 minutes in his rookie year, but he still managed to notch two goals and an assist while also scoring the swaggiest penalty ever taken by a Sounder during the shootout of the playoff loss to the Timbers.

Depth: Harry Shipp and Jordan Morris are both capable of playing on the left, but the top option in Tacoma is probably Azriel Gonzalez. Still just 17, Gonzalez is entering his third professional season and already has three goals and four assists at the USL level. He’ll be expected to carry a fair amount of the offensive load for Defiance this year.

Right midfielder

Starter: Morris is going to get every opportunity to be the starter and has looked perfectly capable — and maybe even outstanding — during his time in preseason. The Sounders seem to want to simplify their expectation of Morris by putting him on the right, asking him to use his speed to get behind defenders and put in crosses with his dominant right foot. Assuming health, a dozen combined goals and assists seems a reasonable baseline expectation.

Backup: If Morris falters, Shipp is a more than capable backup. In less than 1,300 minutes, Shipp had a perfectly respectable three goals and three assists last year. More than the counting stats, the Sounders went 11-0-2 in his last 13 starts, which included a MLS record nine-game winning streak. Shipp may not provide much defense, but he does a lot of little things that help the team win games.

Depth: Bwana might see some minutes here, but if the Sounders needed to go to Tacoma for another body Shandon Hopeau might be the player closest to being able to play this spot at the MLS level. This is a big year for Hopeau, 20, who has shown a lot of skill but not a ton of production so far with just three goals and two assists in about 3,000 USL minutes.

Kayla Mehring / Sounder at Heart

Center midfielder

Starter: This could be the year that Nicolás Lodeiro makes a real run at the MVP award. His eight goals and 16 assists were career bests and on par with his per 90 production in his standout debut season. What’s even more encouraging is that seven of his goals and 14 of his assists came over his final 19 games, when he returned from a failed attempt to make Uruguay’s World Cup roster.

Backup: There is no like-for-like replacement on this roster, mainly because there aren’t many guys in the league who can mimic his combination of workrate and production. If he’s out, though, Rodriguez could slide over or Roldan could move up a line.

Depth: Marlon Vargas and Ray Serrano are probably the top central midfielder prospects in Tacoma. They’ve combined for fewer than 10 professional appearances, though, and it’s hard to imagine either getting into a position to sign a first team contract this year.

Striker

Starter: No one outside of Seattle seems to be hyping up Raúl Ruidíaz’s Golden Boot chances, but he’s got as good of a chance to score 25 goals as anyone. In 16 appearances, including playoffs, Ruidíaz scored 13 goals. That works out to .89 goals per 90 minutes. The only players in MLS with a better scoring rate were Josef Martinez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but neither were better when it came counting only goals from the run of play.

Backup: Would you be surprised if I told you that Will Bruin has enjoyed his two most efficient offensive seasons of his career with the Sounders? Well, he has. In about 3,600 combined minutes, Bruin is averaging about .62 goal+assists per 90. His previous best was in 2012 when he was at .57. In any case, the only backup with at least 1,500 minutes who was more productive than Will Bruin on a per-90 basis last year was LAFC’s Christian Ramirez.

Depth: Morris will probably get some minutes here at some point. You may remember him as the guy who scored the game-winner in the 2017 Gold Cup final and had a brace earlier in the tournament as a No. 9. Neither look likely to get first team minutes this year, but the Sounders do have a pair of intriguing striker prospects at Defiance in Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez and Alec Diaz. Ocampo-Chavez has been getting regular call-ups for the US U17 team, while Diaz scored two goals and had two assists in about 300 USL minutes as a 16-year-old. Keep an eye on those two.