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Postgame Pontifications: Handwalla Bwana could be key to how Sounders manage without stars

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Sounders midfielder looks capable of stepping up his game.

Max Aquino/Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Over the next six weeks or so, there might not be a more important player on the Seattle Sounders than Handwalla Bwana.

The second-year midfielder has started just three games and played fewer than 300 minutes up to this point, but he’s poised to get a lot more playing time as the Sounders’ roster will be stretched to its absolute limit. As many as 12 players will likely miss at least a couple games due to international duty during the upcoming international period, and the Sounders could be missing as many as 11 of them at one time. Those absences will be in addition to any injured players, which will invariably leave the Sounders with a short bench on gamedays.

Bwana, luckily, will be one player who should be around and provided a reminder of what he’s capable of when he scored the game-winner in Wednesday’s match with Orlando City.

Replacing an injured Jordan Morris in the 53rd minute, Bwana almost immediately started doing what he does best: beat opponents on the dribble. Within four minutes of entering he’d already had two successful dribbles and attempted three.

It was in the 68th minute when he had his star turn, running onto a Nicolás Lodeiro cross and scoring it off his shin. Bwana celebrating by pulling off what is best classified as an “Oba-flip” and then doing a prayer celebration alongside fellow muslim Nouhou.

Bwana noted that both he and Nouhou are observing the holy month of Ramadan, meaning they fast 18 hours a day. The celebration was in honor of the holiday.

“We have to show the people that we’re proud of where we come from and proud to be muslims,” Bwana said, adding that trainers have devised a diet for him and Nouhou that allows them to load up on the sidelines as soon as the sun goes down.

The flip, though, proved to be a bit more controversial. Head coach Brian Schmetzer said he was so focused on the referee who was reviewing whether or not Lodeiro had handled the ball in the buildup that he actually hadn’t noticed Bwana’s celebration.

“Did he really do an Oba flip?” he said almost incredulously when informed during the postgame press-conference. “I wasn’t really paying attention to Handwalla, but if he does that and gets injured, I’m going to kill him.”

Schmetzer was only half joking. Considering how short-handed the Sounders will soon be, they can ill afford to lose the player who might be their most explosive attacker remaining once some of the team’s starters are called away for international duty. Even in his limited minutes, Bwana leads the team in dribbles per game (1.6); registers the same number of key passes per game (.4) as Jordan Morris and more than Harry Shipp; and is fourth on the team in shots per game (1.4).

Bwana, who has never started more than three consecutive games or played in more than four straight, is now poised to receive his most consistent playing time of his career.

When told of Schmetzer’s reaction, Bwana was a bit sheepish.

“I will have to come up with something new then,” Bwana said, noting that he’s been celebrating goals with back-flip since he was 7. “I really respect Schmetzer for what he’s done for me and my family. The whole staff has been amazing. If they told me something, I’ll definitely listen to it. If he tells me not to do a flip, I’ll listen to it and switch it up, do something else.”

If he keeps playing like this, he’ll get plenty more opportunities to show that one off too.

It’s a Brad, Brad World

A few days after proving himself capable of handling one of the best attacking midfielders in the league, Smith was back showcasing his offensive game. He, of course, had the assist on Raúl Ruidíaz’s goal, performing one of his now trademark runs to get to the endline before putting in a perfect cross.

That was just the first of several standout moments. By all rights he should have had a second assist when he set up Jordan Morris for a close-range header, only to see the shot go straight down and bounce over the crossbar. Late in the second half, after moving up to the midfield, he had a wonderful move where he touched it over the shoulder of his defender, took one touch and nutmegged another defender with a pass that found Ruidíaz’s near-post run only for the shot to be blocked.

Smith was credited with three key passes in this game, giving him seven in the past two games. His four assists are tied for the league lead among fullbacks and his 1.3 key passes per game rank second among defenders and his 1.1 dribbles per game are tied for seventh among defenders.

Smith’s defensive numbers aren’t bad either. His 2.8 tackles per game rank 20th in MLS and his .9 interceptions per game are perfectly respectable for a fullback.

I bring this all up not just to point out what you probably already know — that Smith is probably the best left back in the league — but to make the case that I’m pretty sure Plan A for the Sounders is to keep Smith beyond his current loan term. I suppose it’s possible that they see Joevin Jones as a longer term answer at the position, but I think they really do see him as a midfielder right now. If they can’t figure out how to keep Smith, they have a backup plan. But I’ve become convinced it’s really a backup plan.

In good hands with Jordy

Over the years, Jordy Delem has proven a worthy squad player. He’s a popular teammate and capable of filling in at a few positions. Since Gustav Svensson’s injury, he’s proven more than just capable.

Delem still doesn’t provide the sort of long-range passing of Svensson, but he may be an even better defender. He rarely loses tackles, moves well and he’s even connecting passes at an impressive rate. Against Orlando, he completed 90 percent and he’s gradually increased his passing in each of his four starts after connecting just 63 percent in his first start.

Schmetzer has definitely noticed the improvement.

“I want to have a special acknowledgement of Jordy Delem,” he said. “A lot of times we watch Jordy play, he’s always been good at breaking up plays, he’s physical, he likes to tackle people and all that.

“But some the things you need to watch on your replay is some of the nuance on the things he’s doing. His body position is getting better, his ability to turn out and release pressure by getting the ball out to the other side, is the work of Gonzo [Pineda] and Delem in training to get better at that. That’s how he’s going to stay on the field longer. That’s how he’s going have a longer career because he’s picking up some of those nuances. Then you couple that with getting an extended run of games, and you can just see his confidence building.”