It’s hardly breaking news to suggest that Concacaf Champions League comes at an inopportune time in the MLS season. The Seattle Sounders will face CD Olimpia of Honduras having not played a competitive match in more than three months. That they’ll be traveling to Honduras for the match hardly makes the task any easier.
If nothing else, tonight’s match will be a learning opportunity. Here are some of the big questions facing the Sounders:
1. Does Nicolás Lodeiro play? If not, who replaces him?
While the Sounders haven’t played a competitive match in more than three months, Lodeiro hasn’t even played a scrimmage since then. Lodeiro didn’t play in either of the matches in Southern California, didn’t face Sacramento Republic and didn’t suit up for either game in Mexico City. According to the Sounders, he’s dealing with some sort of tendinitis and even went to Uruguay to receive some treatment. If it were just about anyone else, he’d have been ruled out by now. But head coach Brian Schmetzer didn’t rule him out, and given his general level of fitness, it’s at least vaguely possible he gets into this one anyway.
In the likelihood he doesn’t play, however, all signs seem to point to Harry Shipp getting the call. Shipp has only made three starts as a No. 10 during his three seasons with the Sounders — all came last year during the summer when many of the team’s starters were missing — but he’s been spelling Lodeiro in most of the preseason matches. He doesn’t have Lodeiro’s motor or raw talent, but he’s possibly the only player on the team who can match his tactical sense. If Shipp is surrounded by mostly first-choice teammates, the Sounders should be in good hands.
2. How does the new centerback pairing look?
As you’ve probably heard, the Sounders have undergone a pretty dramatic rebuilding process at centerback. None of the three CBs currently on the roster began last season with the Sounders and only one of them was around at all last year. Assuming Xavier Arreaga and Yeimar Gomez Andrade start, they offer plenty of potential. Arreaga showed his in flashes last year, unleashing some killer passes and displaying an aggressive defensive posture that sometimes got him into trouble. But with an offseason of preparation, he’s hopefully ready to lead the backline. Gomez Andrade was a relatively late addition, only clearing up his paperwork a few days ago. During his time in the Argentine first division, he showcased the kind of physical presence that has drawn comparisons to Román Torres and Jamison Olave. On paper, they seem like a formidable duo. Let’s hope they figure it out quickly.
3. What kind of impact can João Paulo have?
Probably the most exciting offseason addition was Brazilian midfielder João Paulo. The expectation is that he’ll slot in next to Gustav Svensson with a bit more license to join the attack. In the only match observed by media, João Paulo was very good against the Sacramento Republic. Of course, that was a USL Championship team in preseason while Olimpia is one of the top teams in Honduras and in midseason form. Based on what we’ve seen in that game as well as highlights, João Paulo has the potential to be the type of deep-lying playmaker the Sounders have never really had. In addition to having the ability to hit line-breaking passes and dribble out of trouble, João Paulo also delivers a pretty deadly set piece.
4. How well did preseason prepare the Sounders?
There is no proven best way to conduct a preseason, but the Sounders have seemingly gone off script with their 2020 plan. Although the Sounders played five matches, all of them are probably more accurately called scrimmages. They didn’t play any other MLS teams and didn’t play any other first-division teams from anywhere. Those games also weren’t played under normal rules, allowing for unlimited subs and even being permitted to replace red-carded players. The primary goal, as usual, was to simply get players fit. If it works, it will be interesting to see if it becomes the norm, at least for teams competing in CCL.
5. Will a first-choice group start?
Head coach Brian Schmetzer has been saying that, unlike the last time the Sounders went to CCL, he’s not intending to break the team into two groups. That seems to point to the team’s first-choice players starting against Olimpia. Here’s how we think it will look: