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Sounders preseason: Position battles and players to watch

The Sounders enter preseason with at least two starting spots up for grabs.

Sounders FC Communications

This has been an offseason mostly defined by loss. The Seattle Sounders opening day lineup will be missing at least two starters from MLS Cup and likely two more significant contributors from a team that was among the league’s best throughout 2020.

In their place, the Sounders appear mostly content to promote from within. The most significant signing of the offseason was Kelyn Rowe, a player who could reasonably be expected to contend for a starting spot even on a full roster, but also someone who hasn’t played as many as 2,000 minutes in a season since 2016. By all appearances, a major addition is unlikely to come at least until a new sporting director is found and quite possibly not until the summer.

With preseason training camp officially opening on Monday, now’s a good time to look at the positions most open for competition and who is expected to be battling for those spots.

Areas for competition

Outside winger: Even before they got a particularly awful performance from Joevin Jones in MLS Cup, the right midfield spot was an obvious area where the Sounders could look to upgrade. What they probably weren’t counting on as recently as six weeks ago was needing to fill both outside midfield spots, but that’s exactly where they find themselves now after Jordan Morris was loaned to Swansea City for six months and then promptly tore his ACL, likely leaving him out for the entire year. To be entirely honest, I don’t remember the last time they had two starting spots that were quite this open to competition at this late of a stage in a preseason.

Right back: That the coaching staff thought highly enough of Alex Roldan to start him in MLS Cup even though Kelvin Leerdam seemed reasonably fit says a lot, I think. Roldan may have only have seven career starts at right back, but at 24 he’s still got some potential upside as well. Still, it’s not like he was so good that he deserves to be the unquestioned starter and there isn’t even an obvious backup currently on the roster. Someone could definitely impress enough to jump Roldan in the depth chart, but you’d definitely have to assume that one of the open roster spots will go to someone who plays this position.

Defensive midfielder: Between João Paulo, Cristian Roldan, Jordy Delem, Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio I think the Sounders probably have more than enough depth at this position. But that equation could be altered if Roldan is moved to right midfield and is definitely a position where the depth chart is far from settled. I would be a little surprised if the Sounders brought in any additional players to compete for time at this spot, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all five of these players finish the year with at least 10 starts.

Centerback: The top three spots are pretty well set, even if spots 2 and 3 could flip-flop and do it all over again several times during the season. Yeimar Goméz Andrade is a potential Defender of the Year candidate and I’d be reasonably comfortable with either Shane O’Neill or Xavier Arreaga starting 20 or more matches. Beyond those three, though, the cupboard is pretty bare. The Sounders will almost certainly sign at least one and possibly more centerbacks. At this time the 4th centerback is either Josh Atencio or Jordy Delem.

Veterans who could expand role

Xavier Arreaga: Maybe an odd fit for this list, the Ecuador international’s play could go a long way in allowing the Sounders to overcome some of their losses. At his best, Arreaga is as good of a passer as any defender in MLS. At his worst, he seems to lose focus and can sometimes be a bit over aggressive on defense. When Arreaga is at his best, he’s the clear starter alongside Yeimar Gomez Andrade and pushes the Sounders closer to maximizing the potential of their current roster.

Jordy Delem: The Martinique international has become a solid rotational player since joining the first team from S2 back in 2017. Delem only earned nine starts but appeared in a career-high 77% of games last year. At 27 it would be a little surprising to see him suddenly turn into a full-time starter, but there’s definitely a path for him that includes Roldan moving to right mid.

Jimmy Medranda: As recently as 2018, the Colombian was considered one of the most important players on a team with MLS Cup ambitions. Injuries have dramatically sidetracked Medranda’s career since then, but he was once one of the league’s most versatile players. Probably not a serious contender to start, Medranda could be used at any number of positions.

Kelyn Rowe: Long gone are the days when the Federal Way native was among the league’s rising stars as a creative midfielder. More recently, Rowe’s been making his way as a versatile player who can move all over the midfield as well as at fullback. Don’t count him out as an option as a wide midfielder, though, especially if Schmetzer wants a more veteran presence.

Youngsters to watch

Josh Atencio: Last year at this time, we were assuming that he was a centerback of the future. It now looks like he may be moving to defensive midfielder. That’s neither good nor bad, but is probably an indication that the Sounders like his passing and range more than his 1-v-1 defending. Quietly, he may have some of the highest upside of all the players on this list.

Abdoulaye Cissoko: Probably the name even regular readers of this site are least likely to recognize, the 6-foot-3 Tacoma Defiance centerback has real upside. Cissoko is just 21, is a solid passer, has good range and a body that still has room to fill out. Don’t be at all surprised if AB breaks camp as the team’s No. 4 centerback.

Alec Diaz: After playing almost exclusively as a center forward with Defiance, it would be pretty surprising if the 19-year-old were able to win a starting job out of camp with the Sounders. But after scoring 6 goals and adding 2 assists — tied for the most among USL Championship teenagers last year — he continues to look like someone with MLS potential. Diaz likely won’t break down an opponent off the dribble, but he’s lethal around the box and getting better with his runs. He could definitely make the roster and maybe earn some first team minutes.

Ethan Dobbelaere: Probably the closest thing the Sounders have to a creative winger, the 18-year-old has already earned an MLS start and could make the jump to regular starter. One possibility that Garth Lagerwey even floated was using Dobbelaere as a wingback in a 3-5-2 formation.

Shandon Hopeau: Once an up-and-coming forward, Hopeau is now a winger. In 2019 Defiance coaches wanted him to improve his defense. In doing that he also earned the ball in deeper spaces, finally turning promise into box-score goodness. He’s entering his sixth season among the pros at just 22.

Danny Leyva: Considering he already has more 1,700 professional minutes, it’s easy to forget that Leyva is still just 17. The big question is how well he’s recovered after injuries forced him to miss almost all of 2020. If Leyva looks like the same player who impressed enough to earn his MLS debut at 15, don’t be surprised to see him starting First Kick.

Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez: The former Academy standout was among those who was most hurt by the odd nature of 2020. After failing to even make the gameday roster during the MLS is Back Tournament, he was sent to Defiance for the rest of the year, where he also struggled to find his groove and finished with just 1 goal and 2 assists. That goal came in Defiance’s last game of the season. Based on that, it’s hard to imagine him winning a starting spot out of camp, but the talent is definitely there.

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