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Sounders exit interviews, part 3: The stars

In the final segment of our three-part series, we look at the highest paid players on the Sounders roster and how they performed.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

In the final part of our three-part series examining the Seattle Sounders roster, we look at the players taking up the bulk of the payroll. These are the team’s Designated Players and guys taking up Targeted Allocation Money.

To the degree they were available, they mostly performed well. But a lot of players in this part of the roster missed significant time, with Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro and Stefan Frei each unavailable for at least half of the games. Collectively, players in this group played about 60% of the minutes for which they were eligible.

Xavier Arreaga

One stat that matters: Arreaga averaged 304.5 yards of progressive passing per 90 minutes, second only to João Paulo among Sounders outfield players.

Quick analysis: Healthy and available for most of the season, Arreaga logged an MLS career-high 2,162 minutes, fifth-most on the team. He was, by my eye, the most consistent centerback while also completing a stellar 88.6% of his passes and offering the most progressive passing of the defenders.

Outlook: Although he remains a divisive figure among some fans, I think he’s now established as a foundational aspect of the defense. He’s close to an ideal figure in the middle of a three-centerback formation and should be around for several more years.

Stefan Frei

One stat that matters: Set a career-best with a .94 goals against average.

Quick analysis: Through his first 10 starts, Frei was on pace to set some MLS records in terms of goals against average and goals allowed. But after allowing 11 goals over his final seven starts, his season went from historic to merely very good.

Outlook: There’s no reason to think that Frei is anything less than an elite MLS goalkeeper both now and for the next few years. On top of his goalkeeping ability, he’s also a locker room leader and an active member of the community. We’re lucky to have him.

Yeimar Gomez Andrade

One stat that matters: His 173 tackles+interceptions ranked as the fifth-most in MLS and second-most among centerbacks.

Quick analysis: The Colombian led the Sounders with 2,660 minutes played and was among the league leaders in such statistical areas as interceptions, tackles, aerials won and clearances. As good as he was, there were also a few notable breakdowns late in the season where he seemed to be caught flat-footed or unaware of backside runners.

Outlook: Got called into the Colombia national team for the first time ever as a 29-year-old and is likely a foundational piece of this defense for at least a few more years. Yeimar might be among the best foreign centerbacks ever brought into MLS.

Nicolas Lodeiro

One stat that matters: Attempted just 65 passes per 90 minutes, 11 fewer than in any of his previous seasons with the Sounders.

Quick analysis: It was, effectively, a lost year for the playmaker. Lodeiro opened the season with an injury, then made one substitute appearance before undergoing surgery that kept him out for four months. He returned and played a few games and then had another surgery, only to experience more swelling that kept him out of the regular-season finale. He ended up making just four starts, playing 460 minutes and never looking fully like himself.

Outlook: I’m not ready to completely write off the 32-year-old, but there are now very open questions about his long-term future. He’s now had three surgeries in two years — he had one during the offseason before 2020, too — all of them meant to fix the same problem, and he’s had plenty of time to rest between them. I hope he can come back fit next year because if he can’t, that’s likely the end.

João Paulo

One stat that matters: His eight primary assists were twice as many as he ever had in a single season during his six previous first-division seasons.

Quick analysis: If there was any question about who was the Sounders’ most important player, it should have been answered down the stretch when João Paulo had to miss a couple of games. When he was in, the midfield had the bite and resiliency of a Cosmic Crisp apple. Without João Paulo, it looked more like a Red Delicious — a little mushy and bland. No other midfielder in MLS was able to combine his two-way play.

Outlook: Assuming João Paulo didn’t play himself into a massive raise, he should still be in the TAM range next year. Even if he’s still classified as a DP, that should allow the Sounders to at least sign two additional U22 players and maybe even a Young DP. He’ll still only be 31 next year and is showing no signs of slowing down.

Jordan Morris

One stat that matters: Returned 249 days after suffering his second ACL injury in three years.

Quick analysis: When he went on loan to Swansea City, I assumed that was the last we’d see of Morris. Of course, a torn ACL sent him back to Seattle and he was somewhat surprisingly able to recover in time to play a couple regular-season games. He didn’t do a ton, but it looked like standard rust, not like he had lost a step.

Outlook: I assume Morris will be back with the USMNT for their offseason camp and don’t think it’s out of the question he might even be called in for some World Cup qualifiers. Considering the USMNT’s lack of depth at the striker position, I think it’s even possible he could get onto the World Cup team if all goes well. That’s getting ahead of ourselves, though, I fully expect him to be an integral part of the Sounders in 2022 and who knows after that?

Cristian Roldan

One stat that matters: Not only did he set a career high with 11 g+a, but his 11.9 non-penalty expected goals+expected assists were 4.9 more than he’d ever had in a single season.

Quick analysis: It’s long been said that one of Roldan’s biggest strengths is his versatility. This year we saw him in a new role: central winger. For much of the year, Roldan was ostensibly deployed as one of two attacking midfielders behind a forward. That eventually evolved into more of a wide forward. Whatever you called it, he was integral to the Sounders’ success. Despite national team duty limiting him to just 2,358 minutes, Roldan tied his career high with six goals while adding six assists.

Outlook: He’ll likely be in contention for a World Cup spot, assuming the USA qualifies, and is probably at least getting on the radar of European scouts. Assuming he’s back with the Sounders, he’s an asset no matter what position he’s asked to play.

Raúl Ruidíaz

One stat that matters: Ruidíaz averaged .71 goals per 90 minutes, leaving his MLS career goals per 90 at .70. Chris Wondolowski, the all-time leading scorer in MLS history, only posted two .70 seasons during his 18 years in the league.

Quick analysis: The one thing that has never been in doubt is that Ruidíaz produces when he’s on the field. Playing an MLS career-high 2,147 minutes, he also had an MLS career-best 17 goals. Just for good measure, he added two more goals in Leagues Cup play. If not for injuries that cost him games down the stretch, he might have even won the MLS Golden Boot.

Outlook: The Sounders are reportedly working on an extension for the 31-year-old and there’s no reason to think he can’t keep producing like this for at least a couple more years. Locking in a productive No. 9 is a virtual no-brainer.

Brad Smith

One stat that matters: His seven combined goals and assists equaled his professional total prior to this year.

Quick analysis: The year could not have possibly started out better for Smith, who had three goals and an assist in his first six appearances. But an injury opened the door for Jimmy Medranda to get some of his minutes and Smith never regained his footing. His four assists were a career high, though.

Outlook: Smith’s limitations seemed to be exposed this year. Never a particularly stout defender, it became obvious that he was also really more of a straight-line runner and needed a partner to combine with to be truly effective. He’s on a pretty big contract number and might be considered more of a luxury item than the Sounders can afford.

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