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Everything you need to know as Sounders begin 2021 preseason

After making their fourth MLS Cup in 2020, the Sounders are still targeting another one in 2021 in what will be their biggest challenge yet.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The Schmetzer-Lagerwey seat of leadership for the Seattle Sounders can best be defined in words that describe ancient empires. Entering just their fifth full season together they already have two MLS Cups and two other appearances in the final. They are just the latest duo to sit in the throne of this dynasty, with Schmid-Hanauer, Schmetzer-Hanauer, and so many others also featuring notable successes dating back to 1974.

Now, with 2021 training camp open the Sounders face arguably their toughest challenge since their expansion season of 2009. They are tight against the cap as a global pandemic — worse in the USA than most other nations — hampers the final step of scouting. Their Homegrown MVP candidate, Best XI talent, and United States national team star is out for the year, again. The vibrant fan atmosphere which defined American soccer for more than a decade will be muted, at best, for a majority of the season.

But there’s reason for hope, and faith — vaccines are being distributed, the sale of Henry Wingo offers a bit of cap flexibility, they return two other Best XI players, Brian Schmetzer’s staff is back effectively intact, and the best club in MLS remains likely to be a playoff team running their streak towards the lands only held by the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Antonio Spurs.

The state of the Sounders is strong.

State of the Sounders Roster

Jordan Morris went on loan, and then got injured

There’s no hiding from this. The loan and potential full transfer of Jordan Morris is the biggest story of the 2021 MLS offseason. That’s not just for the Sounders, but for the league. It is bigger than the sales in Philly and Dallas for a few reasons — Morris is already a star, supposedly too old for a big money transfer, and because Seattle’s annual goal is to compete for trophies.

Still, it was the proper time for Morris to look to move. Swansea was a good fit. There was plenty of money that would have been coming back to Seattle to use, eventually. Jordan was looking likely to make the next, final step in a career that wouldn’t have been among those of Donovan/Dempsey/Pulisic, but the tier below that. Now on pause, Jordan and Seattle’s focus for him is on a return from an ACL injury, again. The last time Jordan did his ACL he came back bigger, stronger, faster. That’s his goal.

The Sounders were probably already counting on not having Morris for the entire year, but the now they won’t have the proceeds from his transfer to help soften that blow.

Two additions

As the Morris loan was going down, President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey made two moves to shore up depth while ‘drafting’ two youngsters who could eventually contribute some day. Three of those acquisitions are locals, as the Sounders go even harder into the Puget Sound vibe.

Kelyn Rowe: The 29-year-old utility player is looking to reboot his career after a few years as a spare part. Once a USMNT talent on the wing, Rowe’s most recent time is mostly as a defensive midfielder, with a sprinkle of experience at fullback, forward, and on the wings. With Seattle’s current roster, he will likely contend for a starting spot and playing regularly.

Spencer Richey: Nearly 29 himself, Richey has a career as a bubble starter in MLS with both the Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Cincinnati. The former UW Husky is the most accomplished backup keeper for the Sounders since Marcus Hahnemann. With Stefan Frei now 34 and Seattle likely playing twice a week for a second straight year, it is likely that Richey gets a few starts here.

In the draft, Lagerwey brought in another goalkeeper. After retaining Stefan Cleveland, adding Richey, signing to Christian Herrera to Defiance, and the drafting of T.J. Bush, the club had six keepers under contract. That crowding was taken care of by loaning Trey Muse to San Diego Loyal, which also makes some room for T.J. Bush to potentially make the Defiance roster.

There were four potential HGPs available in the 2021 draft as well. Seattle didn’t draft any of them, though they did arrange for the acquisition of defender Joseph Hafferty, with the likely chance of them developing him into a right back.

There remains a chance that if Jackson Ragen and Paul Rothrock don’t make the MLS rosters of the teams who drafted them, they could get a look in Tacoma.

Many subtractions

The roster losses, outside of Morris, were already as big as any past season. Two stalwarts from the multi-MLS Cup runs are gone. Both Gustav Svensson and Kelvin Leerdam were regular starters in 2020. Fitness concerns apparently kept them from starting the MLS Cup final and their absence was probably the biggest reason the club didn’t perform up to expectation. Leerdam may stay in MLS while Svensson appears likely to not.

Former great, but 2020 struggler, Joevin Jones is also gone. As a left back during the 2016 run he redefined what that position could add to an offense. After his seasons in Germany he transitioned to a right winger, and did not perform up to expectations during his 1.5 seasons back in Seattle. If an MLS team signs him at left back, he can probably contribute, but Seattle doesn’t need three starting quality left backs.

Muse is on loan to San Diego Loyal for the season. The keeper will study under the coach who developed Tally Hall (Matt Hall, no relation) and American legend Landon Donovan. He is likely to be their primary starter.

Also out

Several other players are out, but none of them had the impact much of an impact in 2021. MLS Cup legend Román Torres is off to C.S. Cartaginés in Costa Rica. Miguel Ibarra, who fell out of the rotation as the season wore on, remains unsigned. The played-too-infrequently forward Justin Dhillon signed with San Antonio FC in the USL Championship.

Lagerwey needs to find two starters

Losing four starters and one regular bench player while just adding a rotational player and a backup keeper is big. Not many MLS teams could do that and think that they are still competitive. Lagerwey and Schmetzer think they are. The spine features Best XI talents Nicolás Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz, as well as Cristian Roldan, João Paulo (who is now on a permanent deal counting as a DP in 2021), Yeimar, Xavier Arreaga, and Frei. The number of MLS teams with that much talent through the spine can be counted on your nostrils.

At left back, they are also set — Nouhou keeps adding attacking skills to his game and Brad Smith can still be reasonably be expected to regain the form he flashed in 2018-19.

But there are massive holes at both winger roles and right back has just Alex Roldan, who only played 580 league minutes with 3 regular season starts last season.

There is a bit of money thanks to the sale of Henry Wingo and half of Morris’ salary coming off thanks to his six-month loan, and it’s at least possible the Sounders could gain another $250,000 in cap space by placing him on the season-ending injury list.

It’s still a tough environment to add talent.

Kids are going to have to play

Head Coach Brian Schmetzer may not have a history of giving youth long leashes and runouts. In 2021 he is almost being forced to do so. There’s just not enough talent on the squad right now — with just 22 players under contract — to not give significant minutes to at least one of Shandon Hopeau, Danny Leyva, Ethan Dobbeleare, Josh Atencio, or Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez.

Pay particular attention to training camp to see who gets those first team minutes or who is performing well with the second XI.

State of the Coaching and Scouting Staff

The coaches are back

If there was a single statue built to represent the Sounders from 1974 it would be native son Brian Schmetzer. Signed as a teenager, playing for the NASL Sounders and two different local indoor teams, Schmetzer went on to coach the USL Sounders to multiple trophies, was Sigi’s First Assistant, and then took the MLS side to four MLS Cups in five years winning two of them, including the 2019 Cup in front of 70,000 fans of the home side.

For all of the whispers of a rift between Lagerwey and Schmetzer, the coach is back. He’s a Sounder for life, and one of the best coaches in the history of the league.

Virtually his entire coaching staff remains as well, including all of Gonzalo Pineda, Djimi Traore, Preki and Tommy Dutra. Pineda got a long look from D.C. United, but stays in Seattle. If there is a coach-in-waiting within the organization it is Pineda.

Some promotions

Several members of the support staff took promotions. Wade Webber, another native son, is now the head coach of Defiance, continuing his role in development of Puget Sound’s future. Mike Morris and Josh Ford are also both now fulltime coaches with the Tacoma side.

Chris Henderson joined Inter Miami

Lagerwey’s No. 2 moved on to Inter Miami CF. For years, Chris Henderson has been targeted by other MLS teams, and he finally took a gig that gives him control of soccer operations for a club. Henderson was also the No. 2 under Adrian Hanauer and could be rightly said to be the fifth point of the Hanauer-Schmid-Schmetzer-Lagerwey star that built an organization that has never finished below 4th in the Western Conference or worse than 7th overall while taking home two MLS Cups, a Supporters’ Shield, and 4 US Open Cups in addition to numerous minor trophies.

State of the Fan Experience

Fans of the Sounders have huge expectations. In the Before Times, they defined the matchday experience of American soccer spending about a decade running the attendance title, creating displays that rival the world’s best, and powering the club to wins over Liga MX sides in Concacaf Champions League play.

The Before Times are over. Covid-19 is still spreading in the community, so there are limits on how the nation’s best soccer fans can enjoy their team. But there’s reason to think that fans will return to the stadium again, maybe with some there as early as the season opener, but the stadium will not be full again until late in 2021 at the earliest.

Media aren’t allowed at practices, yet. That will impact how fans are able to follow and connect with the team. Weekly video calls with players and coaches are not the same as being able to observe their performances on the back fields at Starfire Sports complex. Sounder at Heart and other outlets will do their best, but, as everything in the 2020s, it will be a challenge.

There is no change to the broadcast outlets.

  • Local TV — JOETV is the over-the-air outlet
  • Local Streaming — Amazon Prime
  • Local Spanish TV — KUNS
  • Local Radio — Sportsradio KJR 950 AM
  • Local Spanish Radio — El Rey 1360 AM
  • National TV — ESPN, Fox Sports, TUDN
  • National Streaming — ESPN+ subject to blackouts
  • National Radio — Sirius XM FC

There’s a new jersey coming in 2021 too. Nightfall is being retired after its two-year run. There are few credible rumors about the new secondary kit, which will be the dark option for the team.

State of Defiance & Academy

One of Garth’s biggest goals with the organization is to put out more MLS rotational level talent from within the Puget Sound player pool. While the Sounders have done well taking generational talents and developing them (Yedlin, Morris) and adding a plethora of fringe talents, they desire to put out more players who regularly see the pitch both for their own team or when they cannot beat out MLS Cup talents to sell to others. The best examples of this so far have been Wingo and Denso Ulysse.

In 2021 this will be complicated by two things — coaching changes and covid-19 impacts to the Academy.

Chris Little off to Colorado Rapids

After two seasons as the Head Coach with Defiance and Director of Coaching for the Sounders Academy, Chris Little joined the Colorado Rapids. Little will be working with Robin Fraser on prepping a young MLS side to compete in the Western Conference while still spending some efforts on development.

Webber, after three seasons as the top assistant, now moves from assistant to head coach down there.

Academy changes

The United States Development Academy is no more. MLS launched its own developmental system called MLS Next, just as coronavirus spread throughout the US. That combination meant that the Sounders U-19s never completed their 2019-20 season and now no longer exist. This created a lost year for some of the org’s up-and-coming talents and a few moved onto other MLS sides — most notably Austin Brummett who had played with Defiance as one of their youngest talents ever.

Defiance signings

Tacoma took advantage of Timbers 2 dissolving by signing their best player. Carlos Anguiano is a central midfielder who can play as an 8/10/6.

Defiance also signed Herrera to be their starting goalkeeper. The former Oakland Roots player started the NISA final for Roots in 2020 after spending a month with Tacoma during the USL Championship season.

Top talents being brought back are Alec Diaz, Danny Robles, and Ray Serrano. Significant losses include Sam Rogers, Jesse Daley, Nick Hinds, and Antonee Burke.

Welcome to the 2021 MLS season — a season where the Seattle Sounders goal remains what it has been since 2009, to compete for multiple trophies and win at least one. It’s a goal that has been met in every season to this point, though the challenges of 2021 are greater than ever.

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