Over the past two seasons, Jordan Morris has scored 24 goals and dished out 17 assists in MLS competition. Those are not numbers that will be easily replaced, and realistically won’t be equaled by any new acquisition.
Even if Morris returns when his loan to Swansea City ends in the summer — hardly a given and judging by his own words, probably unlikely — the Sounders will have a significant hole to fill for the first half of the season.
But just a few months removed from a second consecutive trip to MLS Cup and still boasting two of the league’s best players in Nicolas Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz, Sounders GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey remains bullish on his team’s prospects.
“This is not a rebuild or a reset,” Lagerwey told the media on Friday. “We hit a little bit of a salary cap wall and you end up paying fewer guys more money. You try to re-arm around them and get the club on sustainable footing.
“Nico and Raul are really special players. They’re top 10 players in MLS. They don’t come around every day. We have to take advantage of their primes the best we can. As long as we have those guys, this core of six guys, we’re going to contend every year.”
Besides Lodeiro and Ruidiaz — who have combined for 68 goals and 59 assists in MLS play since 2018 — the Sounders’ spine is basically intact. João Paulo’s full transfer was just made official and he’ll be under club control through at least 2022; Cristian Roldan is going into the third year of a five-year contract; Yeimar Gómez Andrade is signed through 2023; and Stefan Frei is signed for this year and close to an extension that will keep him in rave green through 2023 as well. All of them are top 5 players at their positions and any combination of them are likely to contend for Best XI honors.
The situation in wide areas is a bit of a different story. Even before Morris’ transfer, the Sounders had some significant question marks without the resources to confidently address them.
Lagerwey confirmed that Morris’ loan — even if only temporary — will clear a few hundred thousand dollars off the salary cap, while also saving some allocation money. The Sounders got further relief when Henry Wingo was transferred for nearly $1 million, netting the Sounders about $200,000 that can be converted into more allocation money.
“We were out of money before this,” Lagerwey said. “Two things that have happened this week, the plan I talked about for two months changed.
“Two leprechauns landed and we got two bags of gold. We do have some capacity to do things.”
Most of that money will likely be saved up until the summer at least. The Sounders do have a few signings planned for next week — likely Kelyn Rowe, Jimmy Medranda, Stefan Cleveland and potentially others — but they’ll mostly be bolstering the team’s depth, not filling holes in the starting lineup.
In a probable sign of where Lagerwey’s thinking is, he spoke glowingly of United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter’s willingness to play younger players early in his tenure even when the results were sometimes ugly.
“I don’t have enough admiration to express to Gregg for having withstood that criticism and sticking to his plan,” Lagerwey said. “If you’re going to play young players, you have to be willing to do that. You have to understand that their ceiling is higher but their floor is lower than the veteran.”
Those comments seemed to directed at least partially toward Brian Schmetzer, who for all his success has often seemed reluctant to ride the ups and downs that come with playing youngsters. Lagerwey isn’t going to literally force Schmetzer’s hand by not signing any veterans, but the early roster will likely be constructed in a way that allows for at least one of Josh Atencio, Ethan Dobbelaere, Shandon Hopeau, Danny Leyva or Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez to push for a starting spot.
“It probably doesn’t make a ton of sense to replace Jordan Morris when you’re not sure what’s going to happen in August,” Lagerwey said. “You don’t want to spend $1 million on a left winger and then move him to the bench when Jordan returns, that’s not real efficient. It’s a situation we’ve not been in before, we have to be creative about how we use it.”