In so many ways, 2021 was a welcome relief. We got to attend games in person again, we watched the Seattle Sounders complete one of their best-ever regular seasons and we were treated to so many golazos that picking a favorite was reasonably divisive.
But it was obviously far from perfect. The Sounders battled injuries, lost a winnable Leagues Cup final and experienced their earliest ever exit from the MLS Playoffs.
The best thing about the end of the year, though, is looking ahead to the next. Here are a few things I’m hoping to see in 2022:
Real movement on a training facility
The Sounders have been talking about trying to upgrade their training facility since at least 2015 when it was mostly focused on improving Starfire for their “fan-owned” USL affiliate. Since those plans were nixed, it’s been a near-constant background discussion but with nothing remotely concrete in terms of action.
That will hopefully change early in the new year.
The tea leaves have long suggested the Sounders are looking to leave Starfire and chatter in local soccer circles seems to confirm that, but it’s not yet clear where the Sounders could be headed. My suspicion is that it will still be somewhere in south King County.
Wherever it is, the opening can’t come soon enough. While Starfire was once considered one of the best training facilities in MLS, it is now much closer to the worst one. The actual training pitch is still very good but everything else about the Sounders’ facilities is outdated and not befitting a club that considers itself the class of MLS. One glaring example: Last year the Sounders had their weight room in a literal tent.
There’s admittedly a silly charm about millionaires fighting for parking spaces with youth soccer parents on tournament weekends, but I suspect players won’t miss it.
A lengthy CCL run
It’s not an easy draw by any stretch, but the Sounders’ path to a CCL final sets up reasonably well.
This will be the second straight time the Sounders are matched up against a Honduran opponent in the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16. Despite scoring a pair of road goals in the first leg of their 2020 matchup against CD Olimpia, the Sounders were eliminated in penalties. This matchup against Motagua isn’t exactly a chance for revenge, but will hopefully show that the Sounders have learned from their previous failure and will keep them from overlooking their opponent. It’s worth remembering that the Sounders led Olimpia 2-0 on the road and were up 2-1 late in the second leg, only to allow equalizers in both games.
A potential matchup with Leon in the quarterfinals is a real chance for revenge. Leon might be Liga MX’s best team in the CCL, but the Sounders showed they can hang in the Leagues Cup final, which was played at a neutral site. A home-and-home series potentially sets up nicely.
If the Sounders can get past León, the most likely semifinal opponent is one of New York City or the Colorado Rapids. Those are obviously good teams but as CCL semifinal matchups go, you can’t really ask for anything better.
Something closer to full health
The biggest bummer about 2021 is how the Sounders never got to see anything particularly close to their ideal XI on the field together. The absences of Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro got most of the attention, but no one played even 90% of the available minutes and only two players even got to 80%. Kelyn Rowe — a player who was signed as a backup — was the only Sounders player to appear in all 38 competitive matches and started more games (28) than Raúl Ruidíaz (27), illustrating their struggles effectively.
I don’t think the Sounders need everyone to stay completely healthy, but if they can at least put together something that resembles an ideal XI by the fall I sure would feel a lot better about their chances of improving on this year’s playoff performance.
This promises to be an especially important year for Lodeiro, who has now been dealing with some version of knee injuries for at least two years. The Sounders seem to think he’ll get back to fitness in 2022, but that may just be somewhat hopeful thinking. Fingers crossed!
Get Raúl extended, and Alex Roldan re-signed
The two most important moves the Sounders can make this offseason have nothing to do with splashy signings from outside the league. No, the two biggest priorities almost have to be getting Raúl Ruidíaz signed to a multi-year extension and making sure that Alex Roldan is here long-term.
After making it known that he was unhappy with the state of negotiations, there’s been little public movement surrounding Ruidíaz’s negotiations. The Sounders are clearly interested in getting him signed to a multi-year extension but also don’t seem to be in any rush to get that done since Ruidíaz is already signed through 2022. Allowing the season to begin without an agreement in place is probably not what anyone wants, though, so let’s hope something gets done before then.
To the degree the Sounders don’t seem too panicked about Ruidíaz’s situation, they seemed even more confident about bringing back Alex Roldan. After several years struggling to find a role, he broke out big time in 2021. Roldan not only won the starting spot as a right wingback, but even made the MLS All-Star team and was bagging important goals while serving as El Salvador’s captain. That he’s free to move anywhere outside MLS would seemingly make him attractive to a whole host of teams. He deserves a big raise and the Sounders seem to understand that.
A couple U22 signings
Assuming Lodeiro is healthy, Ruidíaz returns and Roldan is re-signed, there don’t seem to be any glaring holes in the Sounders’ starting lineup. That gives Garth Lagerwey some freedom. Assuming he uses the third DP spot as an “accounting mechanism”, he’ll have the freedom to add two more U22 Initiative players.
There’s no reason to rush into those signings, but the Sounders shouldn’t be shy about jumping on high-upside players who might be available in the winter. If it were me, I’d probably target a forward or a No. 10 and a fullback.
Another PNW Experience
For all the great moments of 2021, I think my favorite may have been the entirety of the PNW Experience. Even in the middle of a Covid outbreak, about 45,000 fans showed up for the day and more than half of them attended the OL Reign match. The whole event was pretty excellent, even if there was ample room for improvement.
The obvious way to make it even better is to spread it out over a whole weekend and turn it into a sort of festival. Bands could play on stages beforehand, the food-truck offerings could be dramatically expanded, and it could be turned into a massive celebration of Seattle culture.
The Reign will be playing all their home games at Lumen Field, likely with many of those on the same weekend as the Sounders, so logistically this is really all about marketing. Maybe promote it as a chance to break the standalone record for a single NWSL game.
In the meantime, Sounders fans should be putting their money where their mouths are. We’ve been saying we’d attend more games once the Reign removed the various barriers. Well, it doesn’t get much easier than showing up to the same stadium. Reign season tickets are already on sale and a full season will cost you about 40% of what a comparable package costs for the Sounders.