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Taking a deep dive into Sounders organizational depth chart

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With the roster largely set, we dig into each position

Mike Russell / Sounder at Heart

While the Seattle Sounders still only have 22 players under contract, their roster is largely coming into focus. They seem to be pretty much set at their starting positions and even are two-deep at most spots. Barring a surprising signing, the opening day roster is almost certainly going to be built from the group of players currently in training camp.

Now seems like as good of a time as any to take a look at the roster. We did something similar last year, but are taking it a bit deeper this year with a look into the academy. We will be looking at each position at three levels: Starter, backup and future. Our full organizational depth chart can be viewed here, but this is a broad look at the first team (including unsigned players who seem to have a reasonable chance of making it):

Forward

Starter: You might not know it by reading the national publications, but Raúl Ruidíaz is one of the most efficient goalscorers in MLS from open play. In a little less than 3,500 minutes across two regular seasons and postseasons, the Peruvian is scoring .72 goals per 90 minutes without any penalties. That’s better than players like Josef Martinez (.71) and Carlos Vela (.63) and very similar to Zlatan Ibrahimovic (.78). Collectively, those are probably the three most efficient goal-scorers in MLS history and Ruidíaz is right there with them if you ignore penalties. So, yeah, he’s the starter and he’d start for virtually any team in the league at any time in league history.

Backup: If Ruidíaz misses any time during the first month of the season, Justin Dhillon is probably getting the call. The 24-year-old does not yet have a MLS goal in a little more than 250 minutes, but he’s been great at the USL level. In his first season with the Sounders organization, he scored 12 goals and added two assists in about 1,700 minutes. He’s also a big body with decent feet. Give him 1,500 minutes and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he scores 10 goals. But he’s probably just keeping the seat warm for Will Bruin, who seems well on track to return to action by April. Bruin, by the way, is averaging .63 goals and assists per 90 minutes during his three seasons with the Sounders. Those are very good numbers for a backup.

Future: Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez spent most of his 2019 season playing as a forward, but it’s unclear if that’s where he’s likely to play in the future. While his appearances with the first team were all as a forward, his best production came from the wing with Tacoma and his preseason appearances have all been on the wing. Coming along behind Ocampo-Chavez at forward, though, is Austin Brummett. Brummett will turn 16 later this month, and has already been named as a top Development Academy prospect to watch by Will Parchman of the Athletic. Brummett has been often unstoppable in the DA, scoring 15 goals in 23 appearances between the U-15s and U-17s last season, and already has 10 goals in 12 appearances for the U-17s this season. Brummett made history as the youngest player to appear in a USL game last season, and with Dhillon and Ocampo-Chavez set to spend time with the first team in 2020 he has a good chance to improve upon his 125 USL minutes from 2019

Attacking midfield

Starter: Like forward, the Sounders have an elite starter at the No. 10 spot. Nicolás Lodeiro had a bit of a down season by his standards last year, scoring just eight goals with 12 assists during the regular season. But he made up for that with two goals and five assists during the playoff run. Notably his xG and xA stats were basically the same in 2019 as during his much more productive 2018 when he had eight goals and 16 assists. The mild concern over his tendinitis aside, there are no signs that the 30-year-old is slowing down.

Backup: As you might imagine, there’s no easy replacement for arguably the best No. 10 in the league. The newly acquired João Paulo offers one option. He’s never produced goals and assists at Lodeiro’s level, but he’s got a similar motor and appears to have the necessary skillset. In preseason, the Sounders used Harry Shipp here. When the Sounders traded for Shipp before the 2017 season, it was largely assumed he’d spell Lodeiro. It hasn’t worked out that way, but maybe things have changed enough.

Future: There are several Defiance players who might have Lodeiro’s spot as the No. 10 on the vision boards in their bedrooms, but the two seemingly closest to making that jump are Marlon Vargas and Danny Robles. Vargas is capable of playing anywhere along the three attacking midfield spots in Schmetzer’s preferred 4-2-3-1. While he’s spent most of his time with Tacoma out wide, he got several opportunities to play as the 10 in the second group during the first two stages of the Sounders preseason camp. Robles is most comfortable in the middle of the park, whether that’s as an 8 or a 10. His workrate and sturdiness allow him to serve as the midfield engine similarly to how Lodeiro functions with the Sounders. He hasn’t had the end product or counting stats that we’d all like to see, he produced the second most key passes for Tacoma in 2019. Coming along behind those two is highly-touted academy player Juan Alvarez. At 15, Alvarez still has a ways to go before he’s knocking on the door to the first team, but he’s certainly a name to be familiar with.

Left midfielder

Starter: One of the biggest question marks heading into last year was how quickly Jordan Morris could return to his old form. He started off on the right side, with the goal of simplifying his role a bit. He started fine, but really hit his stride after moving to left. There he showcased a skillset that puts him among the league’s best. He could run right by defenders, showed a capable left-footed cross and even started to use his body more efficiently. The Sounders seem to be in good hands. Good thing they signed him to that extension last offseason.

Backup: This is probably Handwalla Bwana’s spot to lose at this point, but he’s coming precariously close to losing it. After a promising rookie campaign, Bwana seemingly regressed a bit last year — or at least failed to take a significant step forward — with just one goal and one assist in 567 minutes. He didn’t exactly dominate at the USL level, either, with a goal and two assists in 476 minutes. That’s just two goals and three assists in about 1,050 minutes. Even though he’s still just 22, this is a big year in terms of his Sounders future.

Future: It might be cheating to list Ocampo-Chavez twice on this list, but the left wing is where he’s played the most of late, and it’s where he had some of his best production with Tacoma in 2019. In his four appearances on the left in the second half of the Defiance season, AOC had 2 goals and 1 assist for 0.79 G+A/90 as Tacoma picked up 3 wins and a draw. Tacoma’s other left midfielder is Azriel Gonzalez, who at 18 has shown in stretches that he’s capable of taking over a game at the USL level, but unfortunately lost a good chunk of last season to injury. He’ll have the chance to show what he can do in an extended run as a key player for Tacoma this year.

Right midfielder

Starter: The clues have been around for a bit, but this is the year the Sounders seem committed to giving Cristian Roldan a serious look as the opening day starter. While his best position over the long term may still end up being as a No. 6 or 8, there’s plenty of reason to think he can be successful from a wide position.

Backup: It’s funny to think that the guy who started at this spot in the MLS Cup final is still on the roster but might not even be the second-choice. Playing as a right-sided midfielder never seemed to entirely suit Joevin Jones and he was used almost more in possession than as a threat to get in behind. If that’s the plan for this spot, Shipp seems to be the better option and he seems to have the inside track through preseason.

Future: Shandon Hopeau has spent much of this preseason looking like the next in line for the right midfield position, often occupying that role with the second group of players in the team’s preseason games. After making the transition from left mid last season with Tacoma it took some time for Hopeau to adjust to the new position. Once he did he was consistently one of the most dangerous players on the field for Defiance. Equally capable of beating a player on the dribble, scoring himself, or setting up his teammates as he did for Dhillon’s first goal in the scrimmage against Sacramento, Hopeau also provides plenty of hard work in defense and in support of the players around him. Not far behind Hopeau are Ray Serrano and Ethan Dobbelaere. Dobbelaere has been well-regarded among viewers of the Sounders Academy for some time now, but has recently jumped onto the scene earning a spot on the ill-fated USYNT squad that competed in last year’s U-17 World Cup. Dobbelaere also garnered inclusion in Parchman’s list for the Athletic.

Box-to-box midfielder

Starter: João Paulo was brought in as a full DP, presumably to offer a significant upgrade. The early returns suggest he’s worth the price. João Paulo has played all over the midfield during a career in Brazil, but this seems to be the spot where he slots in best.

Backup: Roldan is probably the obvious candidate to move back if João Paulo is unavailable for whatever reason. He started MLS Cup, so hard to see that as much of a problem. Don’t be at all surprised to see Danny Leyva get some minutes here, too. Leyva made four starts and played more than 400 minutes as a 16-year-old last year and never looked out of his depth.

Future: While Leyva is still very much a part of #thefuture, Chris Hegardt seems to be closing fast and might grab a first-team contract if he wants it, as he’s — to the best of our knowledge — the only player not on a professional contract still in training camp with the Sounders first team. A smart and skilled player who is full of energy and reads the game well, Hegardt is an asset in possession and in progressing the ball forward quickly, while still providing positive contributions to the defense. If Hegardt is going to play with the first team, though, that would mean forgoing a commitment to play college soccer with the reigning NCAA champions, Georgetown. Should Hegardt choose to put college on hold, he’ll be competing with Leyva as the next in line for that midfield spot.

Defensive midfielder

Starter: The standard thinking seemed to be that Gustav Svensson was looking to move on after last year. Turns out, that wasn’t the case. Svensson was arguably the best player in MLS Cup and has quietly established himself as one of the best defensive midfielder in MLS. The Sounders are in good hands.

Backup: Jordy Delem just keeps quietly going about his business. Many thought for sure the Sounders would lose him in the Expansion Draft, but the Sounders apparently had the same concern and protected him. Delem was coming off a year in which he set career highs for starts (17), games played (23) and minutes (1,439). he’s probably not a starter for a MLS Cup contender, but he’s about as good of a backup as anyone has.

Future: While certainly not a destroyer, Peter Kingston has the tools to be a quality defensive midfielder for Tacoma and Seattle. Part of the inaugural Sounders Discovery Program in 2014, Kingston is extremely familiar with the Sounders system and is very comfortable in their double-pivot, often playing as the deeper of the two midfielders. He’s a technical player who likes to have the ball at his feet, with a great understanding of space — how to occupy it defensively, how to take space on the dribble or to create a pass or occupy a defender, and how to play his teammates into it — he is great in possession and can split a defense with a pass. He’s also capable of scoring on a well-hit free kick. Josh Atencio could see himself in this spot as well, but the Sounders appear to see his future as a centerback.

Left back

Starter: Based on nothing but the preseason game, it looks like Nouhou might have the inside track here. Nouhou is basically a shutdown defender and is almost never beaten 1v1. He also seemed to be less prone to the mental lapses of previous seasons. His offense might never be elite, but that not be necessary. His defense good enough to cover for any other shortcomings.

Backup: Jones goes here only because that’s how they played in the scrimmage against Sacramento. If he’s the backup, he’s immediately the best backup left back in MLS. Still just 28, Jones is three years removed from one of the most prolific seasons from a left back in MLS history. The only cause for concern is that he’s barely played as a left back since 2017 when he put up that 11-assist season.

Future: Nick Hinds is the obvious choice for this spot. He is an academy product who spent much of his time until recently as an attacking midfielder, but has successfully made the transition to left back with Tacoma. He’s a great fit in a Sounders system that requires the fullbacks to get forward and not only contribute to possession and the build-up, but also contribute in the final third. Hinds led Tacoma with 4 assists in 2019, and is likely to improve on that number with the roster more settled around him. Hinds isn’t just an attacking threat at left back, though. His defensive contributions with Tacoma were immense as he led the team in interceptions, tackles, tackles won, and duels won. The pipeline is full of talented left backs, both in front of Hinds and behind him, with Alex Villanueva coming along as well.

Left centerback

Starter: When the Sounders signed Xavier Arreaga out of Ecuador last year, the thinking was that it was a move with the future in mind. The future ended up being now. Arreaga finished with 13 starts, including the playoff game against Los Angeles FC in which he was a huge part of the defensive effort. Despite twice being sent off with double-yellows late in the season, Arreaga seemed to adjust well to the physical level of play and at times showcased some elite-level line-splitting passing. I’m excited to see how he looks with a full preseason.

Backup: There’s only one backup centerback on the roster and I suspect he’s more comfortable on the right. Delem plays here for the Martinique national team, so might be the top backup option for now.

Future: Sam Rogers spent the majority of his time with Tacoma playing on the right of a centerback pair, but that was almost entirely in order to accommodate his partner. As it turns out, this is another spot where the Rogers-Arreaga comparison holds up. Rogers several times lined up alongside Atencio in a centerback tandem with Rogers on the left and Atencio on the right. Given the similarities in their games, from their aggressiveness in pursuing players into the midfield and cutting out passes, to their ability to dribble and play line-breaking passes, if Rogers does end up signing with the first team he could be a good choice to fill in for Arreaga without having to move anyone else around. It’s difficult to determine exact positions for academy players, especially when you’re trying to determine which side a centerback plays on, so I’ll just mention Angel Martinez here. Martinez is a U.S. youth national team player and a leader in the academy, even when playing up an age group. Like so many of the other centerbacks in the Sounders development system, he can play as a centerback or as a defensive midfielder.

Right centerback

Starter: A couple weeks ago, this was a pretty big hole on the roster. After Yeimar Gomez Andrade’s signing, though, the Sounders seem to be in good hands. Gomez Andrade looks to be the complete package. He’s big, strong, fast and even seems to be a decent passer. In other words, he looks like a younger and maybe better version of Román Torres, the man he will be asked to effectively replace.

Backup: Once upon a time, O’Neill was a promising prospect with the Colorado Rapids. As a 19-year-old, O’Neill started 24 games for a Rapids team that made the playoffs. He followed that up with 21 starts in his second full season. He slumped to just three starts in 2015 and then tried his luck in Europe. O’Neill spent parts of three seasons on three different teams in three different leagues. His best run out came in 2016-17 where he played about 2,000 minutes in the Dutch second division. O’Neill has spent the last two years in MLS with Orlando City, logging about 2,000 minutes combined. Still just 26, he’s not without upside but “solid backup with a MLS Cup contender” is probably a good spot for him.

Future: Coming up alongside Rogers is Atencio. The Bellevue native has spent more of his time with Tacoma playing as a defensive midfielder than as a centerback, but given that he’s primarily played as a centerback during preseason with the first team it seems fair to say that that’s where the team sees his future. Atencio is 18 and already has pretty good size for a centerback, but could continue to grow. He knows how to use his size, and is more than comfortable in physical challenges. He’s not just a physical player, though, as his experience in midfield has left him with very high technical skill, excellent awareness, and the ability to open up a team with his passing out of the back. A centerback pairing of Atencio and Rogers is likely one of the most technically skilled ones at any level in the US. Another current academy player who deserves a shout here is Eric Kinzner. Currently 16, Kinzner is committed to play college soccer for the University of Portland. He’s been involved with the US U-16s recently, and could see time with Tacoma this season.

Right back

Starter: At some point last year, someone asked Kelvin Leerdam if he’d ever been on a scoring tear like he was at the start of the season. He looked almost offended when he claimed to have had 10 goals one year in Holland. While that may have been a bit of an exaggeration — every source out there suggests his career high is eight goals — this is a player who knows what it’s like to put the ball in the net. Including his goal in MLS Cup, Leerdam finished with six goals. Don’t be shocked if having a player like Roldan in front of him allows him to get forward enough to equal that number in 2020.

Backup: This is probably the most glaring hole on the roster as of today. The current plan seems to be moving Alex Roldan there. This would be Roldan’s third position in three years, as he started as a wide midfielder in 2018, moved back to defensive midfielder last year and now seems to be getting most of his reps as a right back this preseason. He’s currently unsigned, but is with the team in Mexico.

Future: Antonee Burke-Gilroy is yet another converted midfielder playing as a fullback in the Sounders system, as the Australian made the move from central midfielder to right back with aplomb last season for Tacoma. The position is his to grow into for Tacoma, where his passing and ability to get up and down the field are huge assets. Burke-Gilroy lost some time to injury toward the end of the season last year, and a couple of academy players stepped up to fill in. Bryson Hankins is a more natural right back, and made one 90-minute appearance for Tacoma. A 17 year-old, Hankins has committed to San Diego State University for college, and seems likely to play there next year. Sota Kitahara, another 17 year-old, is more of a utility player, capable of playing in central midfield or as a right back. Kitahara made two appearances with Tacoma, and seems like he’ll have the chance to add to that this year.

Goalkeeper

Starter: Whatever Stefan Frei lacks in individual awards, he makes up for with team silverware. He’s the only active goalkeeper with two MLS Cups to his name and also the only one to lead his team to three finals. I’m not sure the Sounders would swap goalkeepers with anyone in the league.

Backup: Forced to guess who his backup would be if there was a game today, I think Stefan Cleveland is the best bet. The Sounders were apparently pretty high on Cleveland when he was coming out of college in 2017 and identified him as the top available young goalkeeper talent after last season. Cleveland is still mostly untested at MLS, with just five appearances that came in 2018 in which he out-performed his xGA by about a goal. His only playing time in 2019 came with Lansing Ignite of USL League One.

Future: Trey Muse is the future goalkeeper for the Sounders, provided he is able to learn and grow under the guidance and tutelage of Tom Dutra. It’s fair to say that Muse had a rough start in Tacoma, and some of that is to be expected: in his first season as a professional the players around him were almost constantly changing, and the team was often unsettled. Goalkeeper, much like forward, is a confidence position, and when you’ve been rattled by multiple goal losses, it can be tough to regain that confidence. Even with those struggles, Muse saved 66.9% of the shots that he faced, which was the 15th best rate in the 30-team league and started putting together stronger performances late in the year. Provided a more stable team and defense in front of him, Muse should face more savable shots and improve on that number. That improvement could also mean improving on his 97 saves, second most in the league, which he managed in only 22 games. Muse has the makings of a very good goalkeeper, and another year should only see him improve.

How they might line up during international breaks

Although the Sounders don’t actually play during most of the international breaks, they are likely going to be hit pretty hard by Euro 2020 and Copa America in the summer. The Sounders could play as many as seven games without those national team players. Assuming the worst-case scenario, here’s how they’re likely to line up:

That’s a pretty solid defense with a lot of questions marks in the midfield and attack. This may also help explain why MLS veteran Miguel Ibarra is in training camp on trial right now as he could slot it at any of the attacking midfield spots. It’s during this time when the Sounders are most likely to be tested and they’ll probably be very happy to keep their opponents scoreless while hoping for the best going forward.