It’s been four months since the Seattle Sounders last took the field for a competitive game, and there’s a reasonable question of what exactly to expect when they start their run in the MLS is Back Tournament against the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday. That’s especially true on defense, where they’ve replaced three of the four starters from MLS Cup.
After a frustrating dalliance in the Concacaf Champions League and two games of the MLS regular season, there’s plenty of questions that we simply don’t have solid answers for yet. Even beyond the defensive starters, the only holdovers from the start of 2019 are Nouhou and Kelvin Leerdam. Among the players who were on the roster but weren’t fulltime starters, Xavier Arreaga faces a new challenge in a more prominent role, and Joevin Jones and Nouhou are still competing to put their names on the starting leftback spot.
What we know for sure is that Leerdam is the first-choice right back. He offers solid 1v1 and positional defending, and when he’s on his game he is a genuine threat going forward. As he showed last season with five regular-season goals and another in the MLS Cup Final, he’s capable of putting the ball in the back of the net himself, but his reading of the game and ability to make passes that most players couldn’t even see also mean that he’s an asset in possession and could certainly improve on his two assists in 2019.
Arreaga is the half of any CB pair the Sounders might run out that you can write in ink. He’s an exciting and adventurous player, both in how he defends and how he plays when he’s on the ball. In defense, he has a tendency to step out to challenge a player on the ball or attempt to cut-out a pass, he’s quick and fully commits when going into tackles and challenges, which is exhilarating when it works, but can leave the defense scrambling when it doesn’t. When he’s on the ball Xavi is a good passer at all ranges, able to hit a killer ball to spring a player like Jordan Morris into space, and can break pressure with a smart dribble. Exactly how he plays and how he’s utilized will depend on who lines up beside him, which leads us to one of the two big positional battles in the Sounders defense.
Shane O’Neill vs Yeimar Gómez Andrade
The retirement of Chad Marshall and the departure of Román Torres left a vacuum in the center of the Sounders defense that seemed likely to be filled with the signing of Yeimar Gómez Andrade. Shane O’Neill joined the Sounders on the first day of their preseason and, while it was presumed that he’d be the backup to Arreaga and Gómez Andrade, he and Gómez Andrade have each started alongside Arreaga for one CCL game and one MLS game. Neither player has really put their mark on that starting spot as the right-sided CB.
A lack of communication or familiarity between each player and Arreaga contributed to the goals in the opening two MLS games. Against the Chicago Fire, a lack of communication between Arreaga and O’Neill meant Robert Beric was completely unmarked as he ran in on goal before ultimately scoring as Kelvin Leerdam attempted to contest his shot. In the following game against Columbus Crew SC Arreaga stepped out to challenge for the ball at the top of the box but failed to make the pass any harder and with numbers in the box he didn’t work to get back in position while Gómez Andrade found himself stuck not really defending either of two players and couldn’t defend the ball either as Gyasi Zardes found an easy finish at the back post.
In spite of those lapses, both players showed what they can offer as a partner for Arreaga. Both O’Neill and Gómez Andrade provide a big, physical presence, and both put in active shifts with O’Neill contributing 16 defensive actions — including seven clearances — against Chicago and Gómez Andrade putting up 20 defensive actions with 11 recoveries against Columbus. It’s possible that it was just the nature of the two different games, but Gómez Andrade’s activity was more focused in the Sounders’ half of the field than O’Neill’s was.
Defensive actions aren’t all that a defender is asked to do, especially in a team that wants to take better care of the ball like the Sounders. A CB’s ability to pass the ball is increasingly important as the game evolves, and all three of Arreaga, Gómez Andrade, and O’Neill have done a fairly good job with the ball at their feet up to this point — the lowest completion percentage from any of the three over the two MLS games of 2020 was 85% from Gómez Andrade. O’Neill attempted the fewest passes of any performance from the three as he completed 51 passes from 58 attempts against Chicago, and those passes were mostly of medium distance either to the side or backwards. Gómez Andrade may have had the lowest completion percentage with his still-solid 85% against Columbus, but that came from a much higher volume of passes as he completed 68 of the 80 passes that he attempted — just over 14.5% of the team’s total passes. Gómez Andrade wasn’t just a volume passer in that game, though, as his passing was generally more progressive.
How the two work alongside Arreaga may ultimately be what decides who gets the nod more often, as he was required to be less active on defense against Columbus and put up a higher passing completion percentage on fewer passes — 91.6% from 60 attempts — than he did against Chicago with O’Neill alongside him — 86.7% from 83 attempts. Gómez Andrade’s upside may be higher, but his ability to allow Arreaga to be Arreaga could be what wins him a starting spot rather than what he can contribute himself.
Joevin Jones vs Nouhou
At this point anyone who has followed the Sounders for any amount of time is familiar with the club’s two options to start at LB. Jones started in both MLS games to start the season, but if anything can be gleamed from the videos the club has posted from 11v11 scrimmages over the last few weeks it seems like Nouhou is among the preferred starting XI going into the tournament. Notably, he also started both CCL matches earlier this year. That could be a result of the nature of a tournament like this and the defensive presence that Nouhou provides. His ability to be a shut-down 1v1 defender is certain to be an asset.
In contrast, whether playing as a defender or a winger, Jones’ contributions tend to be more on the attacking side of the game. It’s debatable, and may be a matter of personal opinion, if those contributions are more effective or valuable when he plays as a LB, but his ability to play multiple positions could mean that Jones starts more games on the bench able to come into the game at multiple spots. That doesn’t mean he can’t start a game at LB, though, and later move into midfield later like he did against Columbus when Nouhou subbed in around the 60th minute.
There are other, bigger questions to be answered about the MLS is Back Tournament, and while these pale in comparison to whether the tournament will even happen, how many players will get sick, or how they will recover, they could still have a lasting impact on the Sounders beyond just the next several weeks.