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Five questions Sounders must answer this preseason

The Sounders have as many as five starting spots up for grabs.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Every preseason, even the best teams have a host of questions they need to answer in order to feel prepared for the regular season. This year, however, the big questions facing the Seattle Sounders feel a bit more basic. Of the 11 starting spots, only six seem like they are really set, at least two spots seem entirely unsettled and it’s not even totally clear what formation the Sounders will play.

Here are the five biggest questions we feel the Sounders must answer before the season starts in mid-April.

Who starts at left back?

In contrast to the situation at right back, the Sounders continue to have a bit of a embarrassment of riches at left back, where most teams would be happy to start either Brad Smith or Nouhou. Who wins this battle will be among the more intriguing questions of the offseason.

When Smith first arrived in 2018, he quickly ascended to starter and continued to hold onto that spot while healthy throughout 2019. After leaving ahead of 2020, Nouhou claimed the spot and held onto it even after Smith rejoined the team later in the year.

To some degree, Smith’s inability to reclaim his starting spot was surely influenced by the nearly nine months that elapsed between competitive starts. But that’s also discounting Nouhou’s role in raising the bar Smith needed to reach in order to get a more extended look.

Now, the two players will be on more even footing. Nouhou is unquestionably the better 1-v-1 defender, while Smith has looked more polished in the attack and combining with teammates. It will be particularly interesting to watch this battle, as whoever wins will likely have a relatively inexperienced midfielder in front of them. - Jeremiah

Who starts next to Yeimar?

Yeimar Goméz Andrade has been every bit as good as advertised since joining the Sounders from Argentina last offseason, effectively filling the hole left by Chad Marshall’s retirement. What hasn’t quite gone according to plan is finding a stable partner next to him.

That was supposed to be Xavier Arreaga, for whom the Sounders paid a seven-figure transfer fee. Instead, journeyman Shane O’Neill was able to play well enough to start the majority of games, including all four in the playoffs.

It would be unfair to say that Arreaga has been a complete bust up to this point, though. If you dig into the numbers, he was among the league’s best players in terms of overall team performance when he was on the field. Although his high-visibility mistakes get the most attention, he was quietly among the best passing centerbacks in the league.

O’Neill does not offer the same upside, but coaches crave predictability and Schmetzer always knew what he was going to get from him. If the Sounders are to be contenders again this year, they’re going to need Arreaga to be a bit more reliable. - Jeremiah

Can one of the kids step into a starting role?

Jeremiah covered the broad bases of who could contribute, but when narrowing it down to starters there are really just two opportunities, depending on where Cristian Roldan plays — defensive midfielder and winger.

The two youth closest to being ready now are Danny Leyva, who missed 2020 due to injury, and Shandon Hopeau. Leyva was one of the main notes during Schmetzer’s first press conference of the year. While his defensive ability is still questioned, the youngster’s passing tree is the strongest the organization has ever seen in a young player. He can sling balls at all distances and angles, weighting them quite well — think Tiffert, but young and willing to work. If he earns starts it likely means Cristian being pushed to the wing.

But if Leyva falters, the one most ready to contribute 60+ minutes in a match is Hopeau. Once hyped as a dynamic on-ball presence, what earned Hopeau his first-team deal is defensive effort. Turning into a winger that will go both ways means that Shandon’s sides win the ball further up the pitch and he’s in dangerous spaces quickly. Aggressive on goal, Hopeau was the best Defiance attacking player in 2019, his last complete season there. His contributions to an offense are probably most similar to the good versions of Lamar Neagle — as a reminder, Neagle was 23 in his first season as a real contributor in 2011. Hopeau is 22 and entering his sixth pro season with 5,192 minutes, 8 goals, and 7 assists. - Dave

Do the Sounders need a classic 6?

Gustav Svensson won’t be bringing smiles to Sounders fans’ faces or grimaces to the faces of their opponents this year. In his absence it’s fair to wonder if Garth Lagerwey should be looking for a defense-first 6, a classic destroyer. The trouble is, as Jeremiah noted earlier this week, Seattle’s already pretty stacked in the middle of the field. The tandem of João Paulo and Cristian Roldan ought to be the first-choice pairing in Schmetzer’s double-pivot, as it allows two of the team’s best players to play in their best positions. Both are capable of putting in the defensive work required, and they can cover plenty of ground and dictate the game with their passing and off-ball movement. Seattle went 6-2-0 with them controlling the midfield, including the entire playoff run. Unfortunately that did culminate in the frustrating MLS Cup Final loss, but one bad game is no reason to give up on a good thing.

If Roldan gets moved to the wing, or when either player needs a rest or misses time, the midfield depth comes into play. Jordy Delem is a classic 6 who’s not an every-game starter for a team with title ambitions, but he’s a quality rotation player. Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio are both young center mids with plenty of skill and promise, and Leyva in particular has shown well when he’s had his opportunities in MLS. There’s no need to block their way to first team minutes. - Tim

What’s the best way to get two forwards on the pitch?

Schmetzer is, at some point, going to want to find a way to get two forwards into the game together if for no other reason than Raúl Ruidíaz and Will Bruin are two of the team’s only proven scorers. There are basically two paths to get there: he can give a 3-5-2 a serious look (something that I’ve looked at in some depth), or he can try to put his spin on another classic. A 4-4-2 isn’t exactly going to get anyone’s heart racing, but there’s a version of a diamond that would suit the roster as it currently stands while also getting two forwards on the field and allowing the Sounders to play their preferred style.

Seattle’s lack of proven starting-quality wingers isn’t as much of an issue in a formation that doesn’t use them. Fullbacks that go endline-to-endline and can help in possession can provide width. The focus is likely going to be holding onto the ball, so a diamond with JP at the base, Nico Lodeiro at the tip, and, for example, Cristian Roldan and Kelyn Rowe would be well-suited to a possession-based style, with plenty of bite and creative flair to make the machine run. Add Fredy Montero to the mix and suddenly a two-forward set starts to make almost too much sense. - Tim

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