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Where things stand as Sounders head to Round of 16

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Jordan Morris ascends and Nico Lodeiro looks healthy, but there are still questions on defense.

Courtesy Major League Soccer

Heading into the MLS is Back Tournament, there were a host of questions surrounding the Seattle Sounders. Three games in, I’m not entirely sure we have answers to all of those while plenty new ones have cropped up.

What we do know is that they are moving onto the Round of 16 as the No. 2 seed out of their group thanks to the Vancouver Whitecaps’ upset of the Chicago Fire. That sets up a rematch of last year’s Western Conference final against Los Angeles FC on Monday at 8 PM (that’s 11 PM local time!).

What else have we learned? Let’s discuss.

Jordan Morris is a bonafide superstar

Small sample sizes and all that, but it’s been about a calendar year since Jordan Morris strapped on his rocket pack and really began his ascent to superstardom. Including the goal and two assists in this tournament, he now has 12 goals and nine assists over his past 25 MLS appearances. If you throw in his contributions with the United States national team during that same time, he’s up to 17 goals and 16 assists in his past 36 appearances for club and country. No matter how you slice it, those are superstar numbers.

I’m not quite ready to suggest he’s the Sounders’ best player — I think he’s still probably third on the list behind Nicolas Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz when it comes to pure quality — but he might be the player who most dictates how far the Sounders advance in this tournament. When Morris is playing well, he can dominate the game in a way that few others can. His speed, power, vision and finishing ability make him at times completely unmarkable.

Nico Lodeiro working himself back

After seven months between competitive matches, I think it was understandable that Nicolas Lodeiro needed some time to rediscover his form. The first match was not up to his standards, the second one lacked a bit of sharpness but by the time he faced the Whitecaps Lodeiro looked like his old self. Lodeiro finished that match with a goal, an assist and four key passes, which didn’t even include the assist he had on Handwalla Bwana’s disallowed goal. Lodeiro could still get better on corner kicks, but he even helped set up a goal there too.

Just as importantly, he’s covering ground like he used to, connecting with the Sounders’ other stars and generally looking like a player who should compete for a MVP award if the season actually commences.

Diversifying the attack

The Sounders’ offense is still very obviously reliant on the play of Morris, Lodeiro and Ruidiaz, which is fine. The Sounders are now 16-1-3 whenever those three start together (although the one loss was to the Timbers, probably their most likely opponent in the Round of 16). The question over the past year or so is who can the Sounders turn to off the bench if those three are getting shut down?

Last year, the answer was usually “hoping that Victor Rodriguez was healthy.” This year, there’s at least some reason to hope that Handwalla Bwana might be able to emerge as that option. Bwana has improved in each appearance during this tournament, scoring a goal in the second game and putting in a consistently dangerous performance in the second. He’s probably not going to be a starter for this squad when it’s at full strength, but there should still be plenty of opportunities for him.

More good news? It sounds like Will Bruin got through a full training session on Wednesday and is on track to participate in Monday’s game.

Settling the defense

Among the biggest questions heading into the tournament was “who was going to start at left back?” That seems to be answered, in part because Joevin Jones has only played one match due to injury but also due to Nouhou playing like a bonafide starter. Nouhou has barely put a foot wrong all tournament and has shown improved decision-making when joining the attack. That spot seems settled for now.

The bigger issue is at centerback where Xavier Arreaga has struggled and Yeimar Gomez Andrade has suffered an injury. Neither are likely to start on Monday with Arreaga now in concussion protocol which will leave Shane O’Neill likely starting alongside Gustav Svensson. O’Neill, it should be said, has been perfectly fine in his appearances and has now played in all but one of the Sounders’ seven competitive matches this season. I don’t think he’s leapfrogged anyone to be a starter when the team is fully fit, but he’s at least proving to be a viable third centerback who shouldn’t worry fans when he’s on the field.

The other promising development is the play of Alex Roldan at right back. Roldan came off the bench in each of the past two games. He put in some promising looking crosses against the Fire and was useful in possession against the Whitecaps. He’s unlikely to push Kelvin Leerdam for the starting spot, but he’s looking like a solid backup.

What’s up with João Paulo?

One notable absence from the Sounders has been João Paulo who has been unable to suit up for any matches due to a hamstring injury he suffered in late June. The Sounders haven’t given a formal update, but forced to guess I’d say he’s probably more likely to sit out the whole tournament than to play at this point.

I’m sure the Sounders are just as interested in seeing João Paulo play with a full-strength roster as you are, but they’re also sensibly reluctant to risk making his injury worse. The conditions at Disney World don’t seem particularly good for preventing muscle injuries.

Youth movement?

One of the stated goals of the offseason was for the Sounders to get younger. To that end, none of the eight players they’ve signed since MLS Cup are older than 30 and four are 21 or younger. Although the starting lineup still skews pretty old by MLS standards, the bench is filled with relatively young options.

For better or worse, though, it doesn’t look like a bonafide youth movement is imminent. Shandon Hopeau is the only rookie to get a start during the tournament, and Nouhou is the the only player younger than 25 who is line to get regular starts.

Brian Schmetzer will be presented with an interesting opportunity on Monday, assuming injuries elsewhere result in Svensson sliding back a line. The working assumption is that Bwana will get another start on the wing with Cristian Roldan and Jordy Delem in the defensive midfield. But it’s at least possible that Danny Leyva could get his first start of the tournament.