TUKWILA, Wash. — At this time a year ago, centerback was arguably the Seattle Sounders’ deepest position. Leading the group was Chad Marshall, coming off a season in which he easily could have won Defender of the Year. There was a solid competition for the other starting spot between two veteran international-quality players in Román Torres and Kim Kee-hee. The fourth player on the depth chart was MLS veteran Jonathan Campbell and it looked as though academy alum Sam Rogers was poised to make his move from the USL squad to first team.
It was about as close to an ideal scenario as you could hope to have.
Fast forward to today and it’s a very different situation. Not a single centerback who was under contract at the start of last year is back in 2020. A knee injury forced Marshall to retire a few months into the season; Torres joined Inter Miami after having his contract option declined; Kim is still theoretically available but the team seems to have accepted that he won’t be back; Campbell is currently hoping to hook on with another team; and Rogers is making what feels like could be his final bid to earn a first-team contract with the Sounders.
After signing MLS veteran Shane O’Neill the day training camp opened, the Sounders can now at least say they have two centerbacks on the roster. But the position remains extremely unsettled beyond new No. 1 Xavier Arreaga.
“It’s challenging to open training camp with not a full roster,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer admitted. “I can’t hide from that fact, but it’s a fact of life. One of the strengths of my staff has been finding ways to get players to gel in the big moments. It’s a little concerning, but I know at the end of the day that Garth and the guys will take care of it.”
For all the questions around the unit, the Sounders at least feel as though they have their foundational piece in Arreaga.
The 25-year-old Ecuador international was brought in just before the close of the primary transfer window last May with the idea that he would be the long-term replacement for Marshall. Instead, he ended up being needed almost immediately. Less than three weeks after being signed, Arreaga saw his first significant playing time and then got his first start a week later.
The first impressions many fans had of Arreaga may not have been the best — the Sounders lost both games and he had an own-goal in one of them — but he showed consistent improvement over the course of the season. Bumps aside, Arreaga also felt like having to play so early in his tenure helped ease his transition.
“I had a great time,” Arreaga said through a translator. “It helped a lot that my teammates embraced me from Day 1. It helped that I was able to come in and start contributing right away. That made it easier.”
As the season wore on, Arreaga’s abilities also started to outshine any deficiencies. While not necessarily a standout 1-v-1 defender against the more physical No. 9s, Arreaga was fearless in jumping passing lanes and challenging midfielders far up the field, and showed the kind of on-the-ball ability that suggests he can be an elite talent.
This outside-the-foot pass from Arreaga to start the sequence for Morris' goal is ridiculous and debatably rude pic.twitter.com/4nKhEH9VUQ— Joseph Mondello (@JoeMondelloFC) September 3, 2019
“He’s not developing slowly, he’s got to jump in and do well,” Schmetzer said rather matter-of-factly. “It’s not like I don’t think Xavier is ready, he’s ready to play. It’s just can he get consistent minutes, can he do this? Can he get a hold of the league? [These are] some of the things we talk about when a player comes in midseason. I think he’s past all those things. I think he’s ready.”
As evidence of just how good Arreaga can be, Schmetzer points to the Western Conference championship game against LAFC. Coming off the highest point total in league history, LAFC were poised to be crowned the league’s greatest team ever. But first they had to get past the Sounders.
Arreaga was one of the players who signaled early on that LAFC would have their hands full. A shoulder-to-shoulder challenge near the endline put soon-to-be-crowned MVP Carlos Vela on his back. Another physical play later in the match also skirted the line of fair challenges. That sort of fearlessness seemed to provide a boost that allowed the Sounders to emerge with a 3-1 win after falling behind 1-0, and paved the way for their second MLS Cup.
Despite his role in the team’s performance, Arreaga found himself out of the starting lineup in MLS Cup.
“One of the hardest decisions i had to make last year was we go down to LAFC and we play what was arguably our best game ever as a franchise,” Schmetzer said. “Who’s the starting two centerbacks? I had to take Xavier out to bring Román back into the team. We debated that front, back, sideways, over, long, short... that was a tough decision for me.”
For better or worse, it doesn’t look like Schmetzer will have similarly tough decisions to make this year. Arreaga is team’s undisputed No. 1 centerback. The only question is, who will be his partner?