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Is Sounders’ current roster built for a 3-5-2?

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Off-season moves and comments from Brian Schmetzer suggest the Sounders may give a new formation an extended look.

MLS: Cup Final-Seattle Sounders FC vs Columbus Crew SC Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason has brought with it plenty of change already for the Seattle Sounders, as the club parted ways with a number of veteran players in the wake of the MLS Cup Final. Those changes could prompt another change, one away from the deeply familiar 4-2-3-1 formation that has been a mainstay of Brian Schmetzer’s time in charge. With Garth Lagerwey discussing the possibility of playing a 3-5-2 on MLS’s Extratime podcast, it’s time to think about what that might actually look like and how the current roster is suited to the formation.

The departure of Gustav Svensson meant that Cristian Roldan would likely be heading into the 2021 season with a firm grasp on a spot in central midfield alongside João Paulo, while parting ways with Miguel Ibarra and Joevin Jones meant that the right wing spot in Brian Schmetzer’s preferred 4-2-3-1 would go to a local product, one of the Homegrown Players (Ethan Dobbelaere or Shandon Hopeau) or recently acquired Kelyn Rowe, at least in the short term. Jordan Morris joining Swansea City on loan in the English Championship further complicated things, as the team is left with no clear starting caliber wingers on the roster heading into preseason, unless that’s the future home of Brad Smith. With limited resources and lingering uncertainty about Morris’ future with the club, it makes sense to try to find a path forward that limits the need to find two significant signings on the wings. Enter the 3-5-2.

As the roster currently stands, the Starting XI in a 3-5-2 looks pretty good. It’s a team capable of winning games against any MLS team, and playing a rather pleasing style of soccer while they do it.

Possible XI in a 3-5-2.

Starting in the back, while Stefan Frei is a guarantee to start as goalkeeper, there have been plenty of questions about who should start alongside Yeimar Gómez Andrade in a centerback pair. Both of Xavier Arreaga and Shane O’Neill have their deficiencies, and while it’s fair to wish for an upgrade over both of them, they’re the guys who are here right now. The good news is that a three-back formation should provide cover for what could fairly be called questionable decision-making at times from both of O’Neill and Arreaga. The ability to play all three at once not only covers for some weaknesses, it would also allow the team to play to some of their strengths.

The added body in the back would potentially allow Arreaga and Gómez Andrade the freedom to step up into midfield either with the ball or in pursuit of it without having to worry about whether they’ve left their teammates out to dry, adding a level of dynamism on both sides of the ball. Additionally, all three players are, at a minimum, reliable with the ball at their feet, with the ability to hit line-breaking passes that can completely change the shape of a game.

The trouble with three CBs is that the team currently lacks much depth behind them. Josh Atencio, listed as a midfielder on the team’s roster page, has played some as a ball-playing CB, and his passing and technical ability would make him an asset in a back-three where his partners could help him adjust as he grows into the role at this level. Additional reinforcements could come in the form of Joseph Hafferty, a former Sounders Academy player drafted out of Oregon State by Inter Miami in a planned deal to send him to Seattle. In his time at OSU Hafferty played a variety of positions, featuring all across the back line and in central midfield, but he spent the majority of his time as a LCB in a three CB formation. Similarly Jordy Delem could be used more similarly to how he is by the Martinique national team as an RCB. If those backup options likely wouldn’t be quite enough, so the team could look to bring someone like Abdoulaye Cissoko up from Tacoma Defiance — the 21-year-old French defender made 12 appearances in 2020, starting nine times — and the organization is high on his potential. There’s also the possibility of turning Nouhou into an all-action LCB.

Utilizing wing-backs to cover the entirety of both flanks, pitching in defensively and helping to control possession — throw in a well hit cross or several each game, as well — serves to limit the pain of not having top-tier wide attacking players, while also putting the team’s current talent to best use. Whether it’s Nouhou or Brad Smith at LWB, the team gets a player whose speed can open up opponents or shut them down, depending on how it’s utilized. At his best Smith offers good individual defending and excellent service, be that early crosses or balls into the penalty area hit from the end line. Nouhou’s defending is one of the strongest areas of his game, but his decision-making can leave fans and teammates wanting.

The three CBs behind them limit how much those shortcomings can hurt the team. On the opposite side, Alex Roldan likely enters training camp with his name at the top of the list for the right sided defensive role, whether that’s as a right back or a right wing back. He has the energy and work rate to cover his side of the field, and his passing and ball control make him an almost ideal choice for how Seattle would probably utilize wing backs. Add in his gorgeous crosses, and he’s got a good shout as the starter.

There are other options, though, as Kelyn Rowe joins the team ready to compete at multiple spots, potentially including that RB/RWB position. He offers much of the same qualities as the younger Roldan, with a considerably more proven attacking ability at the MLS level. Behind them you’ve also got the possibility of Hafferty or even, as Lagerwey mentioned in his Extratime interview, a move to play Ethan Dobbelaere as a wing back.

More than anywhere else on the field, the starting options in the middle of the park are clear: João Paulo and Cristian Roldan in a double-pivot with Nico Lodeiro in front of them pulling the strings as the No. 10. The trio covers a ton of ground, are all capable of picking out a pass or creating space with a clever dribble, will put in the defensive work necessary, and can all interchange to fill any holes that should pop up. Behind them the team has options, although most of them come with limited experience.

Rowe has spent much of his professional career in central midfield, and provides a good option to back up any of the three. Delem is the other experienced option, providing a much more defense-first look than the other center mids. Danny Leyva has shown moments of absolute brilliance, and appeared to be growing both physically and in terms of his comfort at the MLS level before he lost much of 2020 to injury. Atencio is also a skilled defensive midfielder, and that seemed to be the role the Sounders coaching staff saw him in throughout last season. It also seems as though 15-year-old Defiance midfielder Reed Baker-Whiting will join the team for preseason and have a chance of earning a roster spot. Tacoma’s squad also offers a couple more interesting options, as Danny Robles and Sota Kitahara both could potentially provide cover in midfield for the Sounders.

Up top, Seattle could field an interesting duo that we’ve seen on occasion when the team pushed for a goal in the past. Will Bruin and Raul Ruidiaz offer a sort of odd couple, not-quite big-little pairing. Ruidíaz is more likely to drop deeper to get on the ball, while Bruin is more of a target, hold-up striker, but both offer smart off-ball movement, technical ability, and a seeming joy in making defenders’ lives worse by physically and mentally wearing them down. Both players are more than capable of putting the ball in the back of the net or creating chances, boasting a combined 167 goals and assists in MLS competition.

The roster’s relatively thin behind them, with Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez the only other player currently listed as a forward. AOC appeared to grow into the role with Tacoma in 2020, offering good hold-up play, helping in the build up, and showing improved vision to go along with greater comfort dealing with physicality from defenders. Shandon Hopeau seemingly would be the odd man out with a move to a 3-5-2, having only played on the wings as a professional. Hopeau did spend time as a forward with the Sounders Academy prior to joining Tacoma, though, and his directness and willingness to work hard and make runs could be a different and useful option from the bench in a two forward system. The team could also look to Tacoma’s Alec Diaz, who had something of a breakout 2020 as he got an extended run as the starting forward that has earned him a starting role with the Puerto Rico national team at the age of 19.