One of the roster-building techniques that Garth Lagerwey has employed during most of his tenure as Seattle Sounders general manager is to give himself plenty of room for maneuverability at the start of the season.
This year is no exception and in some ways is taking that to a new level. At first glance, there’s nothing particularly notable about having 25 of 30 roster spots filled. That’s a little low, but well within their standard. But if you dig in a little, you see that includes two players — Shandon Hopeau and Trey Muse — who are on full-season loans to USL Championship teams, which presumably opens their roster spots. A similar fate could await Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, who has apparently been training with Tacoma Defiance for most of preseason. It also includes Jordan Morris, who the team could still elect to place on the season-ending injury list. Combined, those four players could open up one senior roster and three supplemental roster spots.
Breaking it down a bit more, the Sounders have at least two — and potentially as many as five — open spots on the senior roster and at least three — and potentially four — open supplemental roster spots.
Just to add a bit more flexibility, they also have three unused international roster spots after Raúl Ruidíaz opened up one more by obtaining his green card over the offseason.
Who might they sign now?
My suspicion is that the Sounders will probably sign at least two players from the Defiance and/or the academy who have been training with them throughout preseason. Here’s my handicapped list in order of who’s most likely to be signed:
Abdoulaye Cissoko: There’s a lot to like here. Cissoko is a big, quick and apparently technically skilled centerback and, at 21 years old, still has some upside. He also plays a position of need, as the Sounders have just three natural centerbacks on the roster while planning to use a three-centerback formation. They need some depth, badly. The only thing working against Cissoko is that he’s an international, but with three open spots that shouldn’t be too big of an issue.
Reed Baker-Whiting: The 16-year-old has been consistently talked up by Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer and really anyone else with a working knowledge of the academy. Last year, he became the youngest player to ever sign to the Defiance. Go looking for photos of Baker-Whiting online and you’d be excused for thinking he’s not quite physically ready. But those are all pretty outdated and he now has the body for an MLS player. The only question seems to be: what’s his best position? So far, he’s played all over the central midfield.
Sota Kitahara: The 18-year-old has been a known quantity to followers of the academy and Defiance for a couple of years, but it’s only in the last few months where talk of his MLS potential has started to pick up. Kitahara has moved around a bit positionally, but now he seems to be settling in as a defensive midfielder.
Juan Alvarez: I’ll be completely honest, I’m not sure I had even heard of Alvarez before this preseason, and I’ve still never seen him play. But from everything I’ve been told, he might have the most potential to be an offensive star of any of the academy kids. The 16-year-old is apparently a classic No. 10 in the making with smooth skills and talent that’s more refined than the vast majority of players his age.
Alec Diaz: I’m admittedly cheating a little here because I don’t think Diaz is getting signed now. After spending much of preseason with the Puerto Rico national team before joining up with the Defiance, there’s no reason to think Diaz is going to get a first-team contract in the spring. But the Sounders are going to likely need forward reinforcements at some point, and if the 19-year-old gets off to a strong start, he could earn the call.
What about summer signings?
Whether the Sounders sign none or all of the players listed above, that will likely not have much impact on what they’re able to do this summer. They’ve been pretty open about the possibility of adding at least one impact player once they have a better handle on their needs and a sense of the world market. While Lagerwey has said they won’t be able to sign a Designated Player in the summer, they should still be able to add a TAM-level and/or a U22 Initiative player. The smart money suggests that’s how the Sounders will use at least two of their remaining international roster spots.
Anyone reading this is probably familiar with TAM players. In years past, the Sounders have used that mechanism to get players like Victor Rodriguez, Kelvin Leerdam and Yeimar Gomez-Andrade, i.e., veterans capable of being building blocks on championship-caliber teams.
The U22 Initiative is brand new and so far pretty much untested. Essentially, it allows teams to spend as much as they want on transfer or loan fees to acquire relatively young players as long as they aren’t being paid a salary that’s more than the maximum budget charge. These players won’t hit the cap any harder than $200,000. Since the Sounders already have three full DPs on their roster, they’ll only be allowed to sign one of these players. But with João Paulo’s transfer fee coming off the salary cap next year, he’ll likely no longer be a full DP. That would allow the Sounders to potentially sign two additional U22 players.
Of course, finding players who fit this criteria is much easier said than done. The list of successful Young DPs in MLS is pretty short, and those are players who potentially demand bigger salaries. The U22 players will likely be even riskier. Counting on such a player to join at midseason and have enough of an immediate impact to be a significant contributor to a team with championship aspirations is a mighty big ask.