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Three big questions Sounders must answer this offseason

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Getting dismantled in MLS Cup will likely force some soul-searching.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

It’s only been a couple days since the Seattle Sounders turned in one of the most shockingly poor performances in their history. But time is not something MLS teams are afforded when figuring out how to move forward. Within 48 hours of that loss, the Sounders were already announcing which players they were planning to bring back and looking ahead to 2021.

As of now, the Sounders have 19 players under contract and it looks likely that João Paulo will soon make it 20. The core of the 2020 roster remains largely intact, but the Sounders have already given themselves some room to make some potentially significant changes. These are some of the key questions they must now answer.

Why do Sounders keep coming out flat in MLS Cup?

When it comes to “first-world problems” in MLS, failing to win half of your four trips to MLS Cup over a five-year period is pretty high up there. But Sounders fans are used to “first-world problems” by now, and as long as this team fashions itself among the league’s elite, these are the types of questions they must figure out how to answer.

As great as those four trips to MLS Cup are, the reality is that the Sounders have not put together anything like a comprehensive performance in any of them. The Sounders have been shut out in 7 of the 8 halves they’ve played, plus another 30-minute overtime just for good measure. What’s especially concerning is how little they’ve threatened the opposing goal in the first half of each of those matches.

This year’s performance was especially frustrating since Seattle had been one of the league’s top offenses all year, yet finished the first half of Saturday’s match with just 0.05 xG on two shots.

That fit a broad pattern in 2020, where the Sounders were significantly more dangerous in the second half of games than they were in the first half. Including the playoffs, the Sounders were a middling team in the first 45 minutes (they’d have gone 8-8-11, +5 if games ended then) but an elite team in the second 45 minutes (14-7-6, +14). The difference is even more stark when looking at American Soccer Analysis’ G+ stat, which suggests the Sounders were about three times more effective in the second half when compared to the first.

As strategies go, playing opponents relatively even in the first half and then overwhelming them with halftime adjustments isn’t awful. It’s also notable that this “survive and adjust” ethos has served Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer well, especially during the playoffs. Let’s not forget that the Sounders came into this match riding an eight-game playoff winning streak and have gone 15-4-2 under Schmetzer during the postseason.

But maybe that strategy has limitations in a championship game like MLS Cup. Certainly, Caleb Porter seemed ready for it and effectively undercut that strategy by blitzing the Sounders with a high press and direct attack which yielded a 2-0 halftime lead that proved impossible to overcome.

It’s also possible that this strategy is inherently limited by playing on the road. Of the Sounders’ four playoff losses under Schmetzer, all have come on the road and it’s probably worth pointing out that 7 of their 8 straight postseason victories had come at home. This year, the Sounders were 12-1-1, +17 in the second half of games at Lumen Field

One solution might be to throw caution to the wind and put more emphasis on starting strong, at least in cup finals.

Then again, maybe the problem isn’t the strategy — assuming it’s actually part of the plan — but that it’s extremely reliant on playing at home. If that’s case, it only underscores the importance of prioritizing the Supporters’ Shield.

Is Brian Schmetzer too loyal?

It’s obviously easy to second-guess a lineup decision after the fact, but Schmetzer may have given that a bit too much ammo with his choice to start Alex Roldan and Joevin Jones over Kelvin Leerdam and Gustav Svensson in MLS Cup. Leerdam and Svensson had been starters whenever they had been available during the regular season, but had been relegated to the bench for the playoffs through no real fault of their own. In Leerdam’s case, it was a bum hamstring that kept him out, while Svensson basically lost his starting spot due to international duty and being forced to quarantine after a positive Covid-19 test.

Not only had they been starters for most of the year, but they had also played key roles in last year’s MLS Cup victory and helped the Sounders score a late comeback against Minnesota United in the Western Conference finals.

If neither were entirely fit for MLS Cup, Schmetzer didn’t use that as an excuse, basically confirming that he felt compelled to use the same starting lineup that had delivered victories the previous four matches (including the regular-season finale).

Was that Schmetzer being loyal? Was he playing a hot hand? Did he really think that Alex Roldan and Joevin Jones gave the Sounders the best chance to win?

I know the popular narrative is that playing the hot hand is simply always what Schmetzer does. I’m not sure it’s as true as people think. In each of the three previous MLS Cups, Schmetzer made a lineup change from the previous game. In 2016, he inserted Erik Friberg over Andreas Ivanschitz; in 2017 it was Victor Rodriguez for Nouhou; and in 2019 Román Torres replaced Xavier Arreaga.

I don’t know that this also undercuts the narrative that Schmetzer can be loyal to a fault, but it does suggest he’s willing to make changes.

Whatever’s guiding Schmetzer’s decisions, the hope is obviously that it’s solely focused on what gives the Sounders the best chance to win and it’s a fair question to ask if that’s what happened in MLS Cup.

I think Alex Roldan has gotten an unfair degree of criticism on the first two goals — both were pretty systematic breakdowns that left him in very-difficult-to-defend positions — but I’m far more sympathetic to the idea that Svensson could have helped stem the tide. Starting Svensson would have put Cristian Roldan at right midfield, where he not only could have helped with possession but would have also provided added defensive cover for his brother.

Where can they most improve?

The good news is this: If the Sounders had to play a game tomorrow, they’d have a functional roster. I’ll go a step further and say they could stand relatively pat in the offseason and reasonably expect to be competitive until making some splashier signings in the summer, again assuming João Paulo returns.

The Sounders have at least cleared out three TAM-level contracts, and might have even opened a DP spot depending on how João Paulo’s new deal is structured. Even with the salary cap remaining stagnant and automatic raises cutting into some of those savings, the Sounders should still be able to make a couple impact signings to bolster the roster.

Arguably, the biggest decision facing the Sounders the one facing them last offseason: Is Cristian Roldan a championship-caliber right midfielder or is he more likely to be an elite defensive midfielder?

That belief will likely be the guiding force to where and when Seattle spends money. If they like the balance that Roldan can give them as a right midfielder, they can squarely focus on finding a pairing for João Paulo. The nice thing is that João Paulo gives them some flexibility there. He can either be paired with a classic 6 in the Osvaldo Alonso mold or more of a two-way player like Roldan.

If the Sounders think Roldan is a near-perfect partner for João Paulo, that means they can finally get that flashy winger Sounders fans have been pining for. The ideal player for that spot is probably someone like Victor Rodriguez, but maybe a bit younger and a less injury prone. That player would be more offensive-minded that Roldan, but still useful in possession.

One possible tool the Sounders could use to fill that spot is the so-called “Young Money” initiative. Those players can be paid like DPs without hitting the cap nearly as hard, but must be 22 or younger. Signing a player like that would make a lot more sense in the winter as opposed to the summer, when they would be less likely able to quickly adapt. That sort of signing is also likely to give the Sounders a bit more flexibility for the summer when more established players are likely to be available.