The COVID-19 pandemic may have upended everything about the MLS season, but there is one constant that every team in every sport has to deal with: Injuries.
The Seattle Sounders started off the season at less than full strength, with forward Will Bruin recovering from an ACL injury, and Designated Player Nicolas Lodeiro dealing with tendinitis. Neither was involved in the Sounders’ first two league games before the pandemic shut the season down for four months.
If there was a silver lining to be found, the downtime allowed Lodeiro and Bruin to return for the start of the tournament. Of course, the injury bug can be cruel, and Bruin sustained an unrelated leg injury just as he was coming back into full fitness. On top of that, João Paulo picked up a muscle injury around the same time, while the presumptive starting centerback pairing both picked up injuries during the tournament. Yeimar Gómez Andrade (hamstring) has been out since the tournament opener, while Xavier Arreaga suffered a concussion against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Fortunately for the Sounders, years of roster building and youth development leave the team in reasonable — if depleted — shape for their Round of 16 match against Los Angeles FC. Centerback Shane O’Neill, who was brought in to provide depth, has filled the gap admirably and attributes his solid play to the battle for spots in the starting lineup.
“I think that one thing that has been so important has been the competition in training,” O’Neill said. “Yeimar and Xavi have shown tremendous quality, and with Nouhou, you’ve got Joevin [Jones] who can play there, and with Alex Roldan with Kelvin [Leerdam] at right back. I think the competition has made it so that every single day you’re trying to play at a high level.”
Sounders general manager and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey has previously stressed the importance of being at least two-deep at each position to encourage competition and protect against injuries. Through the academy, the Sounders have ramped up their push to sign young Homegrown Players, signing three this year alone. One of those signings, winger Shandon Hopeau, has already seen significant playing time in the tournament, garnering one start and one appearance off the bench. Handwalla Bwana, another academy product, has been one of the more impactful players for the Sounders, scoring a goal against the Chicago Fire and turning in a steady starting performance against the Whitecaps.
“A lot of players have been playing their part coming off the bench,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “It’s a very good group that we have here and if we can push each other in training we can be so much better. The guys that do not start play a huge factor in the game.”
With the status of the injured players up in the air, head coach Brian Schmetzer believes it will be important for those who don’t start to continue to challenge the starters in training and be prepared to contribute if the need arises.
“You need to have competition to make sure that the starters are being pushed by the guys underneath,” Schmetzer said. “I think that’s a challenge for our young players, are they at the [starter] level yet. For some of the mid-range guys, all those guys are important when you are going on a long MLS season.”
- One of the more notable incidents from the LAFC-Sounders Western Conference final was the exchange between Schmetzer and Bob Bradley. After the exchange, which seemed heated, Schmetzer told ESPN he was “doing better than Bob.” Though this is the first meeting of the two teams since the game, Schmetzer said there are no lingering bad feelings. “We settled that back in January,” Schmetzer said. “There is no animosity. Those were just words between two competitive guys after a game.”
- The injury report won’t be out until Sunday at the earliest, though some early reporting suggests that Arreaga could clear concussion protocol and be ready to play, while João Paulo and Gómez Andrade are a bit further away.
- A report from The Athletic suggests that MLS is close to deciding on a format for the remainder of the 2020 season. The proposed format would see a restart on Aug. 22 with 18 regular season games, nine teams from each conference qualifying for playoffs, which would begin on Nov. 20. MLS Cup would be held on Dec. 12.