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Exit Interviews, part 2: The core of the roster

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This is the second part of a three-part series examining the Sounders roster.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

In the second part of our series examining the Seattle Sounders roster, we dig into the players that aren’t quite stars but who have clearly graduated from developmental pieces.

These are the types of players who largely define how well a team performs during the regular season. As nice as it is to having promising youngsters and superstars, these are the guys who are taking up the bulk of the minutes and carrying you through the dregs of summer when international duty can often lay waste to a roster.

If you want to know how the Sounders managed to get to 60 points despite their four highest-paid players appearing in less than half of the available minutes, look no further than this group.

Nicolas Benezet

One stat that matters: 4 goals in less than 700 all-competition minutes.

Quick analysis: Acquired in a transfer deadline trade for virtually nothing, the Frenchman ended up playing a pretty significant role. He rated in the 90th percentile or better in a host of statistical categories. He did this all while becoming an almost immediate fan favorite through his social-media presence.

Outlook: At the right price, you have to think the Sounders would love to bring him back. Of course, that’s a rather significant caveat for a player who made $650,000 last year and played well enough to probably attract some suitors. But Benezet is also a player who seems to shine brightest when he’s in a situation he likes, and by all appearances, he liked his time in Seattle a lot more than previous stops in Toronto and Colorado.

Will Bruin

Stats that matter: The Sounders went 11-3-3 in his starts.

Quick analysis: For a third straight season, injuries played a part in limiting his contributions. But Bruin did play more than in any season since 2018 and when he was healthy, he was reasonably productive. His .42 goals+assists per 90 were sixth best on the team. He did this all while learning a new formation and filling a new role within that formation at the age of 32.

Outlook: Bruin is currently out of contract, but is likely at least in discussions about an extension. The trick for Bruin will be finding a way to stay healthy, because he continues to show that he can still be productive while adapting his game. Having a veteran attacking piece like that has some definite value.

Stefan Cleveland

One stat that matters: Went 6-4-5 at a time when the Sounders were decimated by injuries.

Quick analysis: Called into action due to injury, the 27-year-old ended up starting nearly half of the Sounders’ games and managed to keep them in contention for the top spot in the West throughout the summer. There were some questionable decisions when coming off his line, but he proved himself a capable MLS starter.

Outlook: Given how well he played and that he’s out of contract, I would be a little surprised if someone doesn’t offer him both more money and a chance to compete for starter’s minutes. For that reason, I don’t really expect him to be back. If such a deal doesn’t materialize, however, I have to think he’s seen as a potential successor to Stefan Frei.

Jordy Delem

One stat that matters: Season ended after playing just 37 minutes.

Quick analysis: Suffered a season-ending knee injury in his one and only start, but appeared to be transitioning into a centerback role.

Outlook: He was placed on season-ending injury list early in the year and so there was never any attempt to get him back. He’s out of contract, but assuming he’s fully fit for preseason I would expect him to compete for backup minutes at defensive midfielder or centerback. Great player to have around.

Jimmy Medranda

One stat that matters: His 25 appearances were the same number he had in three previous season combined.

Quick analysis: When healthy, few fullbacks in the league were as dynamic as the Colombian. Medranda had four goals — and one other that was erased by a questionable foul call — all of which were absolute bangers to go along with three assists. He also had strong defensive metrics. His scouting report on FBRef.com looks like Gumby got hit by a semi. Just for good measure, he can play in the midfield too. The only problem was that injuries limited him to less than 1,300 minutes.

Outlook: The wingback position is perfectly made for Medranda, who put up elite numbers. The only question is his ability to stay healthy. It’s now been four years since he was able to play at least 2,000 minutes and he had several stints on the injury report this year. He may always need a viable backup but he should be an automatic starter when healthy.

Fredy Montero

One stat that matters: His 13 combined goals and assists were the most he’s had in a season since 2017 despite playing less than 1,400 minutes.

Quick analysis: Signed in the offseason, I’m not sure anyone really knew what they were getting in the 34-year-old. Turns out, it was a player still perfectly capable of producing in limited minutes. Although Montero cooled off a bit down the stretch, he still finished seven goals and six assists in 1,477 minutes. Only Raúl Ruidíaz had more combined goals and assists on the Sounders.

Outlook: Montero took a league-minimum deal in order to return “home.” I’m not sure if he’s willing to take that deal again, but even if he wants a small raise the Sounders would be crazy not to bring him back. Nothing about his play looks ready to drop off a cliff and he seems OK coming off the bench.

Shane O’Neill

One stat that matters: Completed a career-best 91.9% of his passes.

Quick analysis: A three-back formation needs at least four or five dependable players, and O’Neill was at least that. O’Neill rarely starred but he was flexible enough to play all three spots without ever looking woefully out of place. His 1,856 minutes were a little more than I’d probably prefer but I think he did a good job of filling the roles he was assigned.

Outlook: Even though he’s out of contract, I still think O’Neill will be back and should continue to be someone who gets regular starts, even if he’s not first choice. Especially if he plays like he did in the playoffs, I’m more than happy with that. If someone else makes him a free-agent offer he can’t refuse, I think I’m OK with that too.

Spencer Richey

One stat that matters: Allowed zero goals in two MLS starts.

Quick analysis: You never expect much from your third-string goalkeeper, but Richey managed to post two shutouts in his only first-team appearances. He also made five appearances for the Defiance where he wasn’t quite as good but also never trained with that defense.

Outlook: The Seattle native seemed overjoyed to be returning home and nothing that happened this year seems to have disabused him of that notion.

Álex Roldan

One stat that matters: Played more than 3,400 all-competition minutes for club and country, more minutes than he’d played in his previous three professional seasons combined.

Quick analysis: Given a chance to win the starting right wingback spot out of training camp, Roldan never let go. Not only did he make his first All-Star Game appearance, but he also established himself as a regular on the El Salvador national team where he usually wears the captain’s armband. His production dropped off a bit at the end of the season, but he was a solid two-way contributor throughout and finished with a goal and three assists.

Outlook: That Roldan’s production dropped off a bit was understandable, especially when you consider he logged about 3,400 minutes for club and country, more than he’d played in the previous three professional seasons combined. I suspect he’ll be back and even better in 2022.

Kelyn Rowe

One stat that matters: Was the only Sounder to appear in all 34 regular-season games.

Quick analysis: Another player who came “home” this offseason, the MLS veteran ended up being the only player to feature in every match. Rowe was deployed all over the field and while he wasn’t a locked-in starter anywhere, never looked out of place either. Like O’Neill, Rowe is the exact kind of player you want on a roster.

Outlook: Seems very likely to be back. I suspect he’ll be filling a similar role in 2022 and beyond. He may never put up eye-popping numbers but he can do a job.

Nouhou

One stat that matters: Was limited to 19 MLS appearances, tied for the fewest of his Sounders career.

Quick analysis: This was really a tale of two seasons for Nouhou. Prior to his injury, Nouhou looked like arguably the best centerback in the league. He was shutting down the whole side of the field, muscling forwards off the ball and cutting off passing lanes everywhere. But a lingering adductor injury cost him almost four months and when he came back, he never looked quite the same.

Outlook: Nouhou showed us what his upside looks like in those first eight games, I’m just not sure if it was injury or teams figuring him out that conspired against him down the stretch. As big of a fan as I am, I think the Sounders need to at least consider any offers they might get. If they do bring Nouhou back, I hope it’s because they’re sticking with a three-back formation.