Yes, unfortunately it's that time of the year, one last dose of Sounders doom as I look at the issues that I think the Sounders face in this offseason. Before you read this though, I really suggest reading the Sounder At Heart Exit Interviews and look at the MLSPA free agency list, paying particular attention to the Sounders players. Lastly, if you want to see how I did last year, take a look at my last Doomed Offseason, I think I was pretty prescient on a lot of things (though I 100% whiffed on Medranda). Onward, to DOOM!
The Big Question: What's the Formation Brian?
The Sounders have had a pretty successful season despite missing key stars Jordan Morris and Lodeiro. To compensate for the loss of offensive firepower, Brian Schmetzer deployed an unusual 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 formation in which we play three at the back with roving wingbacks on both offense and defense, and one of the three center backs sometimes joining in to the attack to keep a high press or intervene at key moments in the midfield. That third, sometimes roving center back position was pretty much custom made for Nouhou Tolo, beloved fan favorite, the formation noticeably struggled to find the right defensive balance when Nouhou wasn't in the formation. So, I think the formation question is intimately tied to the question of whether or not Nouhou is going to be playing for the Sounders next season. If Nouhou is back I think this team needs a player somewhat like Nouhou, either right-footed or left-footed, as backup depth for this formation since it is so crucial to the success of this formation for the Sounders. If Nouhou is leaving, it may be time to revert to some variation of the previous 4-2-3-1 or perhaps a 4-2-2-2 (the spike!). There's also the not so small question of how Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris fit into the current formation if we are sticking with the current formation, are they the second striker or somewhere in the midfield? The answers to these formation questions are key to the off season the Sounders need to work through.
Possibly Departing Sounders
The list of possibly departing Sounders is pretty long, but the other issue is the expansion draft coming up for the new Charlotte team. The Sounders can't protect everyone so they have to sort out who is under contract and there is likely at least a few players that will get left out in the cold. Let's talk about the free agents with options first. Jordan Morris didn't do much this season after his second ACL tear, but it would be pretty shocking to see the Sounders not keep him on, if nothing else out of loyalty; the same goes for Jordy Delem (who did not play at all). Fredy Montero took a sizeable pay cut to come back to Seattle then scored seven goalsw ith six assists, how much does he want to be paid? The Sounders typically don't like to force players to take an option year if they aren't happy with the pay, and I'm pretty sure Montero would not be happy with the pay on that option year as it currently stands. I don't think the Sounders are willing to give Montero a big designated player contract, but would a low TAM contract, say around $600,000, be enough? Ultimately I think Montero will get a new TAM level contract and stick around, but I could be wrong. There are similar questions around Kelyn Rowe, he played every game for the Sounders at four different positions by my count (left wing, right wingback, defensive midfielder and offensive midfielder); Rowe hasn't looked amazing at any particular position but he's the solid sort of "stick him anywhere" piece that you love to have around when you need to plug a temporary hole in the roster. if I'm Garth Lagerwey I definitely bring back Rowe, the question is whether you offer him a new contract or just offer him the extra year. Personally, i think locking down Rowe for a few years is a good idea, but I think it depends on how cap-starved the Sounders are. Jimmy Medranda is also a free agent and he's shown the dichotomy that has been in place over his entire career; when Medranda is healthy he's a great player but he can't say healthy and play 90 minutes on a regular basis. Medranda has never played more than 2100 minutes in a season in MLS. If the Sounders keep Medranda on, I think they need to factor in that he likely can't go 90 minutes on a regular basis and you will need at least two backups to help carry the load at that position. Last but not least of the free agents, I think Spencer Richey has played well enough to get a starting position...somewhere else; would love to have Richey stay on but I think someone will pay him to go be a starter, or at least second string keeper.
There's also a few of players that are out of contract (both as free agents and not). Will Bruin has done the dirty work for strike partners Raul Ruidiaz and Fredy Montero while bagging 3 goals and 4 assists, but another major injury ended his season in early November. The biggest question for the Sounders is how much they want to pay Bruin, given that Bruin is 32 and has a history of injury. At this point, I think Bruin has to be a "super sub" type of player if you want him to be able to play consistently, but how valuable is that to the Sounders versus other possibilities? Maybe not $450,000 per year valuable. Next up, Brad Smith had a brilliant start to the season, but as often seems to happen a combination of international duty and injury tripped Smith up and he never really regained that early season form. If the Sounders bring Smith back, much like Medranda, I think they need to factor in the possibility that he may out frequently. Shane O'Neill has, in my opinion, shown that he's a good enough center back to be a starter for many MLS teams, but Arreaga and Yeimar have the two typical center back jobs locked down for the foreseeable future and if the Sounders revert to to a 4 at the back system that means O'Neill will spend even more time on the bench, I think he goes to get paid elsewhere. Lastly, Stefan Cleveland is probably going to be back for another season as a depth piece, he did okay as a backup but not good enough to really get anyone else to outbid the Sounders, I think.
Last but definitely not least, possible transfers. There's a not so small possibility that Cristian Roldan gets some calls from Europe, Roldan has played more USMNT minutes than ever and has had an MVP-caliber season (imho) with proven flexibility. As key as he has been to the Sounders, if Roldan wants to go I could see him heading to Europe to chase the dream and the Sounders getting a modest payday for it. Nicolas Benezet is still under contract, but it sounds like the Sounders, for this season, would have to pay him $650,000, I think that's worth it, but they might leave him unprotected in the expansion draft. It's also possible some trade deals come in from other clubs come in for Benezet, if they're juicy enough Lagerwey might just take them. Lastly, the big one, Nouhou. Nouhou is still under contract for the Sounders, but for the last two years there have been persistent rumors of offers for the center back/left back, often linking him with French teams. Nouhou not only had an amazing year for the Sounders but he also played a bigger part for Cameroon in international games than ever before, I think the rumored offers are going to be even bigger now and I think Lagerwey is going to take that money. My bet is the Sounders revert to 4 at the back, so I'm more or less going to assume that through the rest of this post.
Position Breakdown DOOM!
A lot of the outlook here depends on if Bruin and Montero is back, but we know who the #1 guy is, RAUL RUIDIAZ! Jordan Morris might also play here as a striker underneath Ruidiaz in a two forward system from time to time, rather than as an offensive midfielder. I'd really like to see Sam Adeniran get called up to the first team roster as well, he really impressed me in his limited minutes with the team and I think he could be an excellent addition, even just as a depth piece. Not too many worries here.
In a lot of ways, this was kind of absent for a lot of the season. With Morris and Lodeiro out, the Sounders would frequently field Joao Paulo, Cristian Roldan and one of their defensive midfielders in midfield. In this 3 midfielder system Roldan would play the offensive midfielder role, but he was sort of a combination of destroyer and and right winger, drifting around to different areas to pressure people rather than an out and out offensive force. Assuming the Sounders go to something akin to the old 4-2-3-1, offensive midfield needs to be back on the menu. The biggest question here is the health of Nicolas Lodeiro, if he's ready to go next season and can play most of the minutes, then really the question is who is on the wings. Cristian Roldan at right wing, with Morris on the left is a real possibility again. If Lodeiro isn't going to be healthy enough to play regular minutes, then we really need some sort of #10 to play the role on the regular basis, with Lodeiro as a super-sub. Assuming Lodeiro is healthy and Nicolas Benezet sticks around, he's probably the first off the bench, with Leo Chu being a close second as super-sub. I would really like to see a decent depth piece at the #10 position, especially given Lodeiro's recent injury concerns, hopefully we can find one. With everyone healthy, this team really could cook on offense in a way we didn't in the last month or so of the season.
Barring a whole bunch of offers for Joao Paulo,, Kelyn Rowe Josh Atencio, Dany Leyva and Jordy Delem, this position is rock solid. Cristian Roldan might even move back to this section of the team given the offensive firepower potentially available on the roster.
Assuming the Sounders go back to 4 at the back, I think the biggest question is at left back. Do the Sounders bring back the often injured, but great when they're in form, Jimmy Medranda and Brad Smith? If so, we definitely need at least one depth piece there for the times when they're both hurt. Center back is Yeimar and Arreaga's to lose, but if Shane O'Neill leaves then I think there's a need for one more depth piece aside from AB Cissoko, shouldn't be too hard to find in MLS. Speaking of depth, while Rowe slotted in at right back just fine, it would be nice to see a more dedicated right-back backup for Alex Roldan, particularly now that he's regularly getting minutes with El Salvador.
Stefan Frei is unlikely to lose his starting position anytime soon. I think Stefan Cleveland will be back as a depth piece, maybe Trey Muse will be the third option or the Sounders will find another keeper to replace the likely departing Spencer Richey. And of course, in a pinch we have the clean sheet king in Alex Roldan!
There are A LOT of free agents and players out of contract this year for the Sounders, many of them key to the success of this season and other seasons. The biggest question is how much is a player worth if they can't stay healthy? At what point do you say "this player isn't a starter because they get hurt too much"? A player's agent might point to their production when healthy and say "see, this is worth a lot!" while a GM might look at all the games they missed due to injury and go "yeah but they missed all of this time!". The expansion draft makes all of this more complicated as a brand new team looks to scoop up as much talent as they can to get started on the right foot. I don't envy Garth Lagerwey's job this offseason, it could be a really rough one. I'm not too worried about the team playing poorly next season as of right now though, most of the players likely to go in the expansion draft or via free agent signings are "nice to have" players, not key cogs in the Sounders machine.