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Preseason Talking Points: Ready or not

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The two-forward set shows promise.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — And just like that, the preseason is over.

Normally it seems like an interminable march from the opening days of training until the start of the regular season. But in a time still dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, it was likely all the Sounders could do to get through the preseason. As it is, they’ll start the year having played a handful of scrimmages, and two “official” preseason games against opposition outside the organization.

The last of those matches resulted in a pair of 1-0 victories over the visiting San Diego Loyal of the USL Championship. In the first match, the Sounders played a side comprised mostly of Academy players, Tacoma Defiance signees and some Sounders backups. One interesting inclusion in that group was Colombian center back Yeimar, presumed to be a 1st team stalwart. Academy player Juan Alvarez, 16, scored the game’s only goal in the first game with Will Bruin bagging the second game’s only goal in a match the Sounders thoroughly dominated.

Fredy Montero stumbles, then sizzles

Fredy Montero is definitely going be a key part of the Sounders success, as coach Brian Schmetzer looks to mitigate the loss Jordan Morris for the year. So when the Colombian forward went down in the 2nd minute after what can best be described as an ugly shot at goal, Schmetzer might have wondered if he had bad luck, or no luck at all. Fortunately after a couple of agonizing minutes of treatment. Montero was able to get up and shake off what appeared to be more an injury to his pride after badly missing an open goal.

For the rest of the 90 minutes, Montero was fantastic, playing more of a facilitating role and repeatedly spraying passes to spring teammates, or using some fancy footwork to get himself out of trouble and get the offense moving. And while a preseason game isn’t going to tell you much aside from how the fitness of the team is coming along, it also gives you a look at how things are developing. With Montero, things look very good indeed.

Two forwards

The switch to the two-forward formation has looked quite good in the preseason, limited though it has been. Montero has led to team in scoring this preseason, but it might be Bruin who really helps to make the system click. In addition to scoring the winning goal, Bruin did an expert job at holding the ball up, posting up centerbacks, and laying the ball off to teammates. While Raul Ruidiaz in his 45-minute cameo was his usual dynamic self — managing to fire off 10 shots, six of which were on target — displaying a flair for the dramatic and outrageous. While his finishing was in preseason form — he failed to convert at least three excellent scoring chances, including one off the post — nobody doubts when the lights shine brightest, he’ll be ready.

Josh Atencio

With Nicolás Loderio out for an undetermined amount of time, the Sounders have an opening in the midfield, with Cristian Roldan temporarily moving up a line. Schmetzer has talked up Atencio for much of the preseason. Signed last year, the Bellevue native didn’t see much time, but took strides on training field and through sporadic minutes with the first team.

In getting the start with João Paulo in the defensive midfield, he showed a willingness to get into tackles and break up plays. And when receiving the ball he was able to turn upfield to get the ball moving in attack. Whether he can display more of an offensive threat on his own is still to be determined, but that may not be necessary right now, and Schmetzer will likely be patient with that aspect of his game if he can provide a steady defensive presence.

Smith, Nouhou work together

Schmetzer indicated early this preseason that instead of battling for one position, Brad Smith and Nouhou might be playing together, given the change in formation. And so it was against San Diego, with Nouhou playing left centerback while Smith manned a left wingback position. The result was a defensively solid performance with an attack that is still a work in progress.

While not a dynamic 1-v-1 offensive player, Smith showed why Schmetzer likes him in an advanced position using his speed to get down the field and provide multiple quality crosses and cutback passes that deserved at least one goal. Nouhou was able to mostly focus on defense and some bold forays aside, mostly did a good job staying in position and was never troubled. So it may end up being the best of both worlds in the end.

Verdict on the new formation

Limited to one real look at the two-forward formation, it’s tough to give an overall assessment of how it will play out. On thing is clear: as many thought coming into the year, the spine of the attack is as formidable as any in the league, and getting two forwards on the field will certainly help cover up any deficiencies from the lack of wide play. Two issues to look out for will be centerback depth, and finding a real solution on the wings so the Sounders have a way to break teams down when they bunker or clog up the middle of the field.