This has been, by almost any standard, a season full of uncertainty and chaos. The Seattle Sounders’ season started with an unsettled roster and then Concacaf Champions League. That quickly morphed into dealing with an unexpected CCL exit before segueing to an unplanned two-month break. When the Sounders returned to play, it was in a tournament that allowed for only a short training window and featured a lineup that was often missing several key contributors.
To the degree that something like a normal season is possible in the new COVID-19 reality, we should finally get a look at the “real” Sounders when they start what is effectively phase 2 of the restarted MLS season on Sunday against the Portland Timbers. At the very least, the Sounders are no longer dealing with challenges any different from the rest of the teams in the league.
How might that be different from the team we’ve seen go 2-1-2 in the five games that have counted toward their regular-season record?
Most relevantly, head coach Brian Schmetzer has effectively guaranteed that the starting lineup in the Timbers match will the the full first-choice squad. Essentially, that means João Paulo and Nicolas Lodeiro will start together for the first time all season. It also likely means we’ll see Yeimar Gómez Andrade alongside Xavier Arreaga. Raúl Ruidíaz, Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan, Gustav Svensson, Kelvin Leerdam, and Stefan Frei are all almost guaranteed to start as well.
The only genuine choice facing Schmetzer is who will start at left back between Nouhou and Joevin Jones. Schmetzer seems to be setting up that decision as a sort of statement of purpose.
“If we come out right away and go for it, we put Joevin out there,” Schmetzer explained during a Tuesday appearance on KJR. “If we want to see how the game goes, lockdown mode, we start Nouhou.”
Given Schmetzer’s tendency to be less aggressive with lineup choices when the Sounders are on the road, Nouhou seems to be the more likely choice. That would also give Schmetzer some interesting options off the bench.
In addition to having a full strength starting lineup, Schmetzer will should also have his most robust bench options of the young season as veterans Miguel Ibarra and Will Bruin should both be available. Their health might not seem like a big deal at first glance, but those two — along with someone like Handwalla Bwana or Jones, if he doesn’t start — are the players most capable of changing a match off the bench.
Whatever frustrations the Sounders starters have had up to now have been exacerbated by an inability to inject offense late in matches. It surely isn’t a coincidence that the only time they looked consistently dangerous against Los Angeles FC, for instance, was after Schmetzer inserted both Jones and Bruin into the match.
Taken together, Sunday’s match will be the first time we get to see the Sounders roster as it was envisioned when Garth Lagerwey built it. Personally, I’m still bullish. With João Paulo presumably dropping into the central midfield, the Sounders should have some added creativity without having to sacrifice much bite. With Gómez Andrade fully integrated into the defense, the defense has all the top-end talent it should need. With Jones, Bruin and Ibarra, Schmetzer has plenty of options to chase a game.
You can barely ask for a better test than facing a Timbers team fresh off winning the MLS is Back Tournament and who have to be considered among the league’s best teams as we embark on what will hopefully be a complete regular season.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s hard to say if the Sounders belong in that conversation. By the end of Sunday’s action, we should have a better idea if they do.