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Postgame Pontifications: What we learned at MLS is Back

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It’s important to remember we did not see the Sounders at their best.

Seattle Sounders FC v Los Angeles FC: Knockout Round - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The record will show that the Seattle Sounders were roundly outplayed by Los Angeles FC in their MLS is Back Round of 16 match. The 4-1 scoreline was, arguably, even a bit flattering to the Sounders, who had no answer for the LAFC press early on, were a bit lucky not to concede a couple more goals, and didn’t really muster much of an attack until subs starting coming on in the second half.

Taken as a whole, the performance at the tournament was hardly inspiring. The Sounders only looked good offensively in one of their four matches and they only looked good defensively in two of them.

How big of a deal any of that is, however, is harder to suss out.

For all the problems and inconsistency we saw at Disney World, I feel it’s important to point out that we’ve still not seen what this team looks like at full strength. As true as it is that they looked overmatched against the best opponent they faced, the Sounders were playing that match without their three most significant offseason signings. The Sounders’ two biggest offseason signings — João Paulo and Yeimar Goméz Andrade — played a grand total of 62 minutes in this tournament, all of which were played by the centerback in the first game.

For anyone just dying to know what the Sounders would have looked like if they jettisoned four of their top 12 players from last year’s MLS Cup winners and didn’t replace them with anyone, you have your answer. For those of us who are interested to see what this year’s team will look like when it’s completely put together, we will need to wait a bit longer.

While we may not have learned much about the top-level strength of this roster, I don’t think the tournament was anything like a complete waste when it comes to learning opportunities. Here were some of my takeaways:

Get Jordan the ball

I’m not quite ready to declare that Jordan Morris is the Sounders’ best player, but I think we can all agree that the team is at its best when he is getting the ball. Morris only touched the ball 28 times against LAFC, the fewest of any starter on a per-minute basis. None of those 28 touches were a shot and he struggled to get the ball in dangerous places with any sort of regularity. That can’t be allowed to happen.

It’s no coincidence that the Sounders played their best offensive game against the the Vancouver Whitecaps, and that was also the game Morris had his most touches.

There’s an element of chicken-and-egg to that, no doubt, but the Sounders also need to make getting him the ball with the ability to run at defenders a priority in the game plan. The Sounders are so much more dynamic when Morris is running at defenders than they are in any other aspect of their play. That’s obviously much easier said than done, but it’s something they’re going to need to figure out if this team is to reach its full potential.

Need at centerback

If there’s one major concern that was highlighted during the tournament, it’s the same one that’s been around since the departures of Román Torres and Kim Kee-hee: the depth and quality of the centerback position.

Like I said earlier, it’s hard to make a full assessment of this position because Gómez Andrade barely played in this tournament and was far from settled when he played earlier in the year. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen even if there were still some mistakes.

Even assuming Gómez Andrade is as good as advertised, there are reasons for concern. I love the things Xavier Arreaga does well — his passing, dribbling and vision all seem well above average for a centerback — but that’s all weighed against an apparent propensity for sloppy mistakes. Arreaga opened with a solid performance against the San Jose Earthquakes, had a nightmare against the Chicago Fire and was against solid against the Whitecaps. Against LAFC, he had a sloppy penalty to set up the first goal and then had an awful clearance that directly led to the third goal.

That’s four goals he was directly responsible for in four games, or about a goal per game. There’s no way around it — that’s simply not good enough for someone expected to be a starter on a championship-caliber team.

Also of concern is that the only other natural centerback on the roster is Shane O’Neill. I don’t think O’Neill was great, but I think he’s a fine backup option. The problem is that he’s currently the ONLY backup option and has already been asked to start four of the team’s seven competitive matches this season.

I have no idea how much room is left in the budget to acquire another potential starting-caliber centerback, but if I was making the call that’s the position I’d be most focused on.

Will’s still useful

It had been 13 months since Will Bruin last took the field in a competitive match. He only needed two touches to score his first goal.

Bruin may not be a regular starter for a MLS team with championship aspirations, but he showed he’s still a valuable piece. Bruin is always a willing runner and he’s as good as anyone in and around the penalty area. Being able to bring him off the bench in order to unsettle a defense is a huge tool to add to Brian Schmetzer’s bag.

So is Joevin

Joevin Jones was limited to just two appearances due to an adductor strain, but he managed to provide a distinct reminder of how good can he can be in one of those. Jones entered the match at the same time as Bruin and their combination resulted in two of the Sounders’ best chances of the night.

I’ll stick by my past insistence that the starting left back job is now Nouhou’s to lose, but Jones very clearly has a role to play within this team.

The kids are all right

The younger players didn’t play as big of a role as expected in this tournament, but they did show signs of being able to contribute. The player who stepped up the most was probably Shandon Hopeau.

Hopeau got onto the field in all four games and probably had his best performance against LAFC. In 35 minutes, he managed to squeeze off three shots — one of which had the potential to be a goal if Raúl Ruidíaz hadn’t gotten in the way — and had two successful dribbles. Hopeau’s energy also seemed to help spark the attack, which managed to finally look dangerous after he entered.

The biggest disappointment was that Danny Leyva didn’t get more time. Leyva only ended up playing in one of the four games and wasn’t even available for the LAFC match after breaking a bone in his foot in a training incident. There’s not yet been any word on how long he might be out.

At least no one got sick

Like many of you, I had mixed emotions about this tournament. That was due, at least in part, to concern over player safety. But after a rocky start that resulted in two teams needing to be withdrawn, it seems like the league has created an environment where players at least feel safe. It has now been 18 days since a player tested positive for COVID-19, and to the best of my knowledge, no one in the Sounders’ traveling party got sick. Whatever you may think about the risk the league took in holding the tournament, they at least deserve credit for getting this far without any serious breaches of the bubble.