The 2020 MLS Regular Season is still very much up in the air, but we at least have the next phase of games to get ready for. When the Seattle Sounders return to play later this month they will still have some massive question marks around what their best lineup looks like. That’s due at least in part to the underwhelming play of centerback Xavier Arreaga, a player that was signed last year to replace defensive stalwart Chad Marshall.
Arreaga has had his bright moments, to be sure. His best game in a Sounders shirt came in the Western Conference Final last season when he got the best of league MVP Carlos Vela. But, on the whole, he’s failed to grab a hold of the CB1 spot since signing for the Sounders. His harshest critics will point to his performance in the MLS is Back Tournament, where he had a very poor showing. He was disastrous in Seattle’s loss to the Chicago Fire when two of his mistakes led to both goals. No one was particularly good against LAFC, but Arreaga conceded a penalty and made some awful mistakes that led to more goals.
There were even moments last season when clouds of doubt surrounded the Ecuadorian defender starting when he conceded an own goal in his first start. His last two regular season appearances in 2019 saw him get sent off both times because of two yellows. It’s now been 15 months since Chad Marshall retired, and we still have questions surrounding what the Sounders need to do at the centerback position. Here’s three possible solutions the Sounders could take to solve the Arreaga problem.
The Sounders have invested a ton of resources into the signing of Arreaga. When he was first signed last year he was initially signed as a Designated Player due in part to the sizable transfer fee. He’s now a high level TAM player after the Sounders signed Joao Paulo as their third DP. Furthermore, the Sounders have also given a TAM contract to Yeimar Gomez Andrade and are largely tapped out of roster resources. Because it’s unlikely that a new signing will come in to replace Arreaga right away, the best course of action may be for the Sounders to be patient with the defender.
Going this route has obvious risks since it means he could still perform at a subpar level. Maybe a fully fit Sounders roster can outscore opponents which would allow for the occasional defending mishap to be mitigated. The biggest defense someone can make for Arreaga is that he hasn’t had enough time to settle in and that he’s had a constantly rotating cast of partners. If he can get an extended run of games with the same partner, it’s entirely possible his performances improve and he settles in.
Give up on him
Another option Seattle could explore is simply giving up on Arreaga. They could deem that he’s not good enough and use the other players on the roster to bridge the gap until the offseason. This move is obviously just as risky (if not more!) as the previous option, because that would require the Sounders to go with some form of Shane O’Neill or Gustav Svensson in partnership with Yeimar Gomez Andrade. It would also mean that faith in Arreaga is completely lost, which would probably only further erode his confidence. If there was ever a reason to need to play him again, that could ultimately be the most costly.
Both replacement options aren’t ideal. Svensson is primarily a defensive midfielder who can “do a job” at CB. He’s been solid there for Seattle in the past, but it’s obviously not his preferred or best position. Also moving Svensson back a line means you probably have to mix up the midfield with Jordy Delem at DM, as the preference seems to be to move Cristian Roldan to right midfield. Or you play Roldan at DM and it’s dealer’s choice on the wing. O’Neill is naturally a centerback but he was signed as a rotational option. He has his limitations and probably shouldn’t be relied on as a starter. He has also shown during the MLS is Back Tournament that he’s prone to mistakes.
It wouldn’t be the first time a player was iced out by the Sounders. Several high investment players have been benched. The situation is not so dissimilar to the one Brian Schmetzer faced with Nelson Valdez in 2016. Harry Shipp was integral to Seattle’s historic run in 2018, but was benched when the team was fully fit. Schmetzer still found ways to make use of both players despite losing their starting spots.
Let’s get weird
Perhaps the strangest option the Sounders could explore might be one that gets the most bang for their buck in 2020 and beyond.
They could convert Nouhou to CB. Stay with me here. I promise it makes sense.
Nouhou’s time with the Sounders has been wrought with hot takes. He’s some people’s favorite player, while he’s some fans’ biggest headache. Nouhou has certainly come into his own this season at the left back position, but there’s still question marks surrounding his ability to become a top fullback in MLS, especially on the offensive side of the ball. When you dig into his strengths, it starts to show that the transition to playing centerback might not be that far our there for Nouhou. It even makes more sense when you take into consideration Arreaga’s weakness, which are the problem the Sounders need to solve.
Nouhou is a very, very good defender. He’s great at one on one defending. He’s also exceptional at covering the weak side. You see this in his goal line clearances and such. His ability to be a lockdown defender has never really been brought into question, it’s the offense that he lacks — which is arguably more important with the modern fullback. What Nouhou does well offensively is retain the ball by making safe passes and not dribbling into pressure. That’s exactly what you want from a centerback!
Moving Nouhou to CB also means you can play Joevin Jones more regularly in his best position. The Sounders could line up with a back six of: Jones, Nouhou, Andrade, Kelvin Leerdam, Svensson, and João Paulo. In possession, Svensson could drop between the two CBs to widen the field, giving Nouhou protection in the middle. This also allows Seattle to push their fullbacks high up the field, which is something that worked tremendously well in 2019 and years prior.
Of course, moving Nouhou to centerback comes with inherent risk. One problem is that his listed height is 5-foot-10. That’s pretty short for a centerback. The classic way a centerback plays is to be tough and physical, and height is a big factor in that. Big tall CB wins a ton of headers. Sorta like Chad Marshall. Remember him?
But, if we look a little deeper, there’s plenty of really good sub-6-foot centerbacks in this league. Eddie Segura from LAFC is probably the best comparison in terms of how good could Nouhou be at CB. Especially when you consider that like LAFC, Seattle wants to be a team that dominates possession.
It’s not likely to happen, but there’s strong evidence that Nouhou could transition to be a very good CB. I’d really like to see it, how about you?