Welcome to 2021. Based on pre-season predictions, Seattle was an old, bad team and Minnesota great and dominant. Playing without the injured Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris, and losing starters like Kelvin Leerdam and Gustav Svensson, the Sounders were going to get run out of the building in a game between two teams heading in different directions.
Reports of their demise were greatly exaggerated.
What really happened was Seattle outplayed their opponent almost all match, maximized their big plays, and took advantage of nearly all opportunities they created. Seattle played very strong defense in a three-back system, giving up 17 shots, but of the five on frame only three came from inside the box. The offense took a while to warm up, but they created the better chances for most of the game and coasted to a 4-0 opening day win. A number of players vied for MOTM during an all around strong showing to open the season.
Stefan Frei – 7 | Community – 7.2
Frei was strong in the first outing of the year. His positioning was stellar, he was vocal and he led his defense to remain compact and simple. Minnesota was a top-10 offense last year, and any time you get a shutout against a good team it’s more than just the goalie, but Frei gets a lot of credit for adjusting to how the defense set up his keeping. He was aggressive off his line when needed and supported distribution with his feet across the back, giving his defense confidence throughout. Seattle did struggle as a team to work goal kicks and will need to solve this problem quickly.
One thing I liked: Frei had a lot of shutouts get away from him in the last few seasons, but he wasn’t going to be denied here. Of his four saves, a nice 69th minute parry versus Ramon Ábila was his best: a dipping, well-struck ball that he had late visibility on.
One thing I didn’t like: Minnesota nearly scored moments after Seattle took the lead, and Frei was completely lost on this set piece. He came out tentatively and was stuck in no-man’s land in between his goal and the ball, and he had to be bailed out by Cristian Roldan after missing completely.
Going forward: Frei has the tools to be the best goalie in the league, and with a system in front of him that has a high ceiling, Seattle should be happy with this defensive result. Based off a single match, Frei looks to improve on his shutout numbers over 2020, in which, even though Seattle had a top-five defense, he had his lowest shutout total since 2009, consistently losing deserved clean sheets.
Nouhou – 8 | Community – 7.7
Nouhou had everything you’ve loved about him over the years and almost none of the stuff you’ve hated. He was strong, assertive, and he made great decisions while playing his first minutes as a left center back. The game just slows down for Nouhou when he defends, and his anticipation and physical ability allow him to dominate opponents in space. This formation looked like a natural fit for his skill set. Limiting his forays into the attacking third also limited his mistakes there, essentially giving Nouhou the lock-down cornerback role that Richard Sherman had in his best years for the Seahawks. The entire left defensive quarter of the field was given to Nouhou to patrol, and he handled this expertly.
One thing I liked: The Seattle defender was tasked with covering from midfield to 18 on his half of the field, but he started more centrally, allowing him to attack the opponent instead of reacting to others, and he was excellent in doing so. Nouhou reads plays so well and attacks the opponents to the width with pace and determination that is unparalleled in the league. He stayed tight to Xavier Arreaga, using his speed to charge wide when warranted, and won every race to the corner areas any time Minnesota looked to exploit this “space.” He led Seattle with seven clearances and five interceptions, diving into passing lanes and shutting down all attempts down his side.
One thing I didn’t like: His communication and connection with teammates can improve, and there were a couple of times when it was unclear who was tasked with defending certain situations. Specifically, connecting with Brad Smith was a struggle, and if Seattle is going to play this way, those two need to get on the same page so it is easier to move the ball up the left.
Going forward: Nouhou looks deadly playing this position, as more space to work just accentuates his speed and power advantages over any attacking player he matches up against. If he can continue to improve on the minor errors, Nouhou looks to be a dominant player again this season.
Xavier Arreaga – 7 | Community – 6.7 (off 77’ for Yeimar)
Xavier looked comfortable in his role in the middle of the defense, marshalling the forces and keeping very strong central positioning. His decision making was good for much of the match, and he maintained a dominant physical presence for Seattle in the back as the Sounders defense won every aerial duel. Arreaga distributed the ball smoothly, a near 80 percent completion rate while limiting errors in dangerous sections of the field.
One thing I liked: In minute 14 you saw why he was put in the center of the three-back lineup. His calm turn under pressure broke the ankles of Robin Lod for Minnesota, and Xavi transitioned the ball into attack with his head up. His pass was unsuccessful, but this little piece of confidence with the ball at his feet portends great things for future transition plays, especially when adding the always open Nico Lodeiro to jump start the ball from the back.
One thing I didn’t like: Decision making in the defensive aspect of the match was strong for Arreaga, but his choices when going forward and distributing need work. We know how good a passer he can be, but in this match, Xavier was relegated to safe, short passes even at times when there were better options higher up the field that would have been more beneficial for Seattle.
Going forward: His position and choices can improve in the back, and I would have liked to see him more vocal with keeping his wide center backs more cohesive as a unit, but this was a great debut for a new formation and a lot of that credit should go to Arreaga. Cleaning up a few mistakes and completing a few of the open forward passes he missed will highlight how fantastic this player can be for Seattle.
Shane O’Neill – 6 | Community – 6.4
O’Neill did a solid job and continues to be a guy who can be plugged onto the field and play consistently to his high floor. Shane’s best attribute is his ability to play within himself and this led him to playing a completely different, yet still effective, method of wide center back compared to Seattle’s left. Against Minnesota, O’Neill started far from Arreaga but closer to João Paulo and Alex Roldan and relied on teammates to support him in the more central gaps this created. This asymmetrical shape worked well, and Minnesota limited their attacks down his side of the field until the second half.
One thing I liked: Shane is not flashy or prone to draw attention to his play, which is exactly what you want from a defender. He has a remarkable knack to do the right thing based on positioning and reading of the ball. O’Neill follows that up with physical challenges and just sort of does everything right if he’s in his comfort zone. He was clearly comfortable against Minnesota and was especially strong pressing high and limiting runs down his wing.
One thing I didn’t like: This performance isn’t going to make anyone forget YGA, and that meant Arreaga and JP had to do a lot of babysitting for the gaps in the back right, but Seattle adjusted well to use this asymmetry as a strength. In the 36th minute Minnesota had their best chance of the first half when Lod hit the post; Lod was opened up by Shane leaving him and instead defending the six-yard box. The communication in tight quarters needs fixing.
Going forward: O’Neill showed he can play right center back to a shutout against a strong offensive team and that sets a considerably high bar for the team going forward. It will be interesting to see if he keeps starting, as his positioning forces Seattle to play a certain way. I am confident that this level of play from Shane is repeatable, and that dependability is golden for a coach and defense.
Brad Smith – 5 | Community – 5.4 (off 82’ for Dobbelaere)
Supposedly one of the few Sounders who had played this formation before, Brad looked completely lost for much of the match. His positioning on the wide left was tentative, he somehow failed to support both the defense and the offense for long stretches, and he rarely seemed to get untracked.
One thing I liked: A few blips showed the potential of Brad in this offense. A 19th minute early cross from just over the midline came in a curler from wide and nearly found a vertical Cristian Roldan run. A 48th minute back post volley showed him in good position, but unable to execute a tough finish. These plays show that it’s not a mental issue with him, but inability to physically do what he wants, which bears watching.
One thing I didn’t like: Smith’s passing was awful, and at 48 percent, was by far the worst completion rate on the team. Many of these passes weren’t even close, and while Seattle didn’t directly suffer from this plethora of incompletions, they often put the Sounders in tough defensive positions or stifled any offensive momentum created.
Going forward: We haven’t seen a ton of great distribution or direct goal-dangerous play from Smith, and it remains to be seen if he can develop or exhibit these features that you want from a left wing back. Based on the past, he has sufficient skill to be a great fit for this role, but he will need to improve vastly upon this outing.
João Paulo – 8 | Community – 8.2 (off 77’ for Rowe)
What if I told you this is the same João Paulo we had last year, who came in and was a top-three performer for a Seattle team that made MLS Cup Final? His stats were the same — tied for most touches, three tackles, three key passes, 74 percent passing and a rocket volley that should contend for goal of the year. This was what JP did nearly all last year, and yet he still doesn’t get the national attention he deserves because what he does isn’t as flashy as others (such as the big DP from the other team who had similar, yet worse stats in this match and all the pre game hype).
One thing I liked: JP did a ton on both ends of the field, from defending into the corners of both sides as well as getting into the attack and connecting nearly everywhere, but his goal is worth another look. And then another. Each time I watch it, I see something else to be impressed by. It was an incredibly special strike, nearly impossible to hit without the ball ending up in Safeco Field. This was a small reminder that even though 90 percent of his game is defined by hustle, tenacity, and effort, he still has the skill and finesse to do the nearly-impossible soccer feat.
One thing I didn’t like: João has a very “Alonso-circa-2010” ability to play defense that is skilled and physical without crossing the line into dangerous. But like Alonso, he skirts this line closely. Although he wasn’t penalized until the 54th minute for a few of his iffy challenges, I think he should minimize the unnecessary chances he takes and limit the opportunity for referees to be more involved in the match than needed.
Going forward: This is who JP is and giving him more opportunity to impact the match is a good thing. Seattle still has room to improve as they learn the formation and tweak positioning, but João Paulo’s ability to adjust to players and situations on the fly makes him uniquely capable of excelling this season.
Josh Atencio – 7 | Community – 6.8
Atencio came into this game as fairly unknown — a 19-year-old kid who’s played fewer minutes as a pro than he has years on this planet. He left the game as a proven asset and a quality piece that can slot in as a defensive midfielder and distribute cleanly while defending well. Josh ended with the most touches on the team and completed 80 percent of his pass attempts. He also led the team with six tackles, showing natural defensive positioning.
One thing I liked: Atencio had a very positionally strong match on the defensive end, but also grew into the game confidently going forward. In the 18th minute he took a counterattack on the dribble and expertly pushed central to attack directly, opening a wide pass. In the 48th he again dribbled forward, this time beating multiple defenders before calmly controlling the ball in the attacking third to find a teammate. A 62nd minute over the top pass to Will Bruin was his best of the night, opening the forward into space. Josh’s offensive maturity and distribution is fantastic.
One thing I didn’t like: There were a few hiccups, mostly positioning errors or reaction time issues when adjusting to moving parts around him. An early hand ball wasn’t called for a penalty against Josh, and while it would have been harsh (and likely an offsides) his positioning marking no one with his arms up needs fixing quickly.
Going forward: As someone who has been high on Atencio since his Youdan Trophy play in 2017, it’s wonderful to see this player improve and not only look comfortable, but excel on an MLS pitch. He may have already passed Jordy Delem on the defensive midfield depth chart and has plenty of room to improve. If he can build on this outing in any consistent way, he will be a vital part of Seattle’s success for a long time.
Cristian Roldan – 8 (MOTM) | Community – 8.2 (MOTM)
There were a lot of good choices for MOTM, but for me it came down to who had the most complete game, and it was Cristian Roldan. He absolutely blew up my notes, with 61 touches, four aerials won, three key passes, a beautiful assist, a shot, 86 percent passing rate, and 12 defensive actions. Cristian was everywhere on the field, showing up both defensively in support of his brother wide, and offensively on diagonal and direct runs through the middle.
One thing I liked: With everyone in shock after JP scored a wonder goal, most of the Sounders fell asleep on a Minnesota set piece moments later. Roldan, ever alert, raced to the end line even before the header was put on goal, and saved the match with a spectacular save off the line. It’s more than just the constant effort to get to this ball or onto a later Fredy Montero pass. It’s the soccer feel to know where to go, to read the game and get to the important place, whether defensively or offensively, that separates Cristian from lesser players. His natural talent of reading the game is fantastic.
One thing I didn’t like: There were several uncharacteristicly sloppy touches from the elder Roldan in this match, the worst of which came in the 64th minute toward his own goal. Minnesota was gifted an immediate shot, and this is an example of a small fix with potential big impact going forward.
Going forward: Roldan is set to have another big year for the Sounders, now in a formation that accentuates his work rate and ability to read the match perhaps even better than before. Combining with Nico and JP in the middle has huge potential to not only outwork opponents centrally, but “out-skill” them as well.
Alex Roldan – 6 | Community – 6.9
Alex is a good fit for wing back and the job fits his skill set well. The new formation allows him to be more of a two-way player but also limits his need to get into the corners, an issue that has been a struggle for him. Instead, he is asked to patrol wide and play curling far-post crosses, a skill at which he is excellent.
One thing I liked: A-Rold serves a pretty ball, and when he gets time and the ball on his foot, he can deliver a dime. In the 86th minute he had time to look up and recognized the back-post run of Montero. Alex’s assist was a textbook curling pass, drawing the keeper off his line but giving Fredy multiple options with how to deal with it. As Seattle develops more cohesive final third play, these diagonal balls will be important to counter packed in defenses, and A-Rold has a good eye for backside runs.
One thing I didn’t like: Roldan was a bit of a mess defensively, losing runners down his wing on multiple occasions as well as struggling to mark his man when Cristian had to clear a ball off the line. With a slower player like Shane behind him, Alex needs to do better in dealing with sustained pressure and distributing with his left foot centrally, as these guys had some trouble in the first half connecting with teammates.
Going forward: Alex and Shane struggled defensively on the right at times, and Roldan seemed unable to deal with pressure on the sideline. It remains to be seen if a better team can press Seattle down the right into bigger problems, but for now A-Rold will want to limit his possession in tight spaces and look to accentuate his strong vision and early crossing to open up his role as wide facilitator.
Will Bruin – 7 | Community – 7.1 (off 71’ for Montero)
Bruin pushed up into a two-forward system and looked comfortable in the formation, dropping back to help support and link up, and the Sounders leveraged that pressure into some quality chances. Will had a mediocre first half, struggling to find his role in the offense, but he warmed up some in the second, combining better and ultimately showing off his skills to create a goal. He finished with three key passes and was a facilitator for others instead of a direct threat to goal.
One thing I liked: When Bruin plays to his feet and toward the ball, good things happen. Posting up, holding up the ball, linking with teammates, and passing vision are all strong points for Will, and he leaned on these more in the second half. This culminated in him coming to the ball, turning a defender, and slotting a nifty pass to a wide open Raúl Ruidíaz to score. When Bruin plays toward the ball, good things happen.
One thing I didn’t like: When Will plays away from the ball, he struggles. By this I mean, when a teammate has the ball and Bruin runs away, instead of checking to or posting up. Trying to flick into and run into space, looking for through balls to him or long diagonals just don’t work very well, and he kept trying to run away from the ball and forcing teammates to attempt through balls to him. Will has excellent feet and isn’t fast so it’s perplexing why he consistently asks for passes to spaces he can’t get to instead of to his feet where he can link up.
Going forward: Bruin played well and was a big reason why Ruidíaz found the space he had to work. The biggest advantage this system seemed to have was there were always more people in the box than in prior seasons and that meant the forwards were consistently in goal dangerous positions. Will must be more goal-dangerous as a forward, however, as he didn’t record a single shot.
Raúl Ruidíaz – 8 | Community – 8.0
Ruidíaz is a goal scorer. He is going to keep shooting and he is going to score in a lot of ways. Against Minnesota he was constantly finding the ball in dangerous positions and attacking the goal directly, while his partner Bruin did more facilitating. A lot of Raúl’s work was done off the ball, checking in behind and moving the center backs around, but he worked the ball effectively in a few hold up occasions and linked with Montero as well after his inclusion.
One thing I liked: Raúl didn’t hang his head after missing a PK; instead, he ratcheted up his pressure. He ended up putting five of his game-leading seven shots on goal, scoring two. The goals he scored were vintage Ruidíaz, with his brain doing most of the work. On each goal Raúl read the play perfectly, beat a defender to the open spot, and finished cleanly when handed beautiful passes from teammates. Neither goal was a high difficulty finish, but his effort to get to the right place made each even easier.
One thing I didn’t like: Got to make your penalty kicks. He had a golden opportunity in the 29th minute to put Seattle up in a half where the game was very tight, and Minnesota had the better of the ball. Gotta make it.
Going forward: Raúl isn’t one to dwell on a missed goal, nor is he going to care that his goals weren’t super difficult. What is important is he scored twice, looks as deadly as ever, and if anything, this formation might be giving him even more chances than prior. Adding in Nico will just increase his chances.
Fredy Montero – 7 | Community – 7.6 (on 71’ for Bruin)
I love Fredy and this was the return he deserved. He looked fantastic in his 20 minutes, immediately dropping into a Regista role, and controlling the Sounders attack beautifully. Moments after arriving on the field, he found a perfect pass to Cristian for Seattle’s third goal. He was continually distributing wide balls, opening the field, while also linking up with Raúl and others through the middle.
One thing I liked: Fredy had one shot and he made it count. Presented with a few options after finding himself with a lovely A-Rold cross and tons of space, Montero chose difficult mode yet still calmly volleyed home the final Sounders goal. He made it look easy, finishing first-time into the back of the net. He still has it.
One thing I didn’t like: Fredy had a bad pass in the 79th, and there were a few small blips in possession where he looked a little unsure of where teammates were going to go.
Going forward: I won’t downplay how much I loved Fredy in his first iteration with Seattle. He was so special and important for this team within its MLS inception. I was super high on his inclusion to the 2021 team, mainly because his passing and distribution for Vancouver were impressive last year. This performance showed he is a huge pickup for the Sounders, with his ability to score from anywhere, control and hold up the ball like someone twice his size, and distribute like the best playmakers in the league. His 20 minutes were offensively dominant.
Yeimar Gómez Andrade – 6 | Community – 6.5 (on 77’ for Arreaga)
Yeimar came on and looked somehow bigger than last year. His size and speed calmly held down his side of the field to see out the shutout.
One thing I liked: in the 85th minute YGA put on display how big and fast he is, cutting out an opponent, shielding the ball, and turning smoothly.
One thing I didn’t like: Someone this talented needs to find a way to start games.
Going forward: Nouhou was so strong in this match because he has the speed and athleticism to cover big areas, allowing him to stay compact centrally and then push wide as needed. Shane had to adjust and play wider and closer to Alex due to his playstyle. I think Yeimar is much closer to Nouhou in size and speed and should be able to both strengthen defensively and give A-Rold more time to work. All of this is incumbent on him earning playing time that the coaches haven’t deemed earned yet, but you can see how he could impress in this formation.
Kelyn Rowe – 5 | Community – 6.0 (on 77’ for João Paulo)
It was nice to see Rowe for the first time in a Sounders uniform, and he hustled around and did some nice things in a short stint. He was active, touching the ball 15 times and getting into some strong tactical areas in support of teammates’ movement.
One thing I liked: Kelyn was a cool 8/8 passing, exactly what you want for a guy coming on to help hold a shutout and keep a win on the board.
One thing I didn’t like: I didn’t see much to differentiate him from any other sub, and while he didn’t make any big mistakes, there wasn’t anything notably positive either.
Going forward: Rowe is someone who hypothetically should be challenging for playing time or even starting, and this wasn’t a long enough appearance to do anything other than agree with the lineup put out by the coaches.
Ethan Dobbelaere – 5 | Community – 5.7 (on 82’ for Smith)
Ethan came into the game ostensibly playing “hustle attacker” (as Arbeck put it) and did well to hustle and attack.
One thing I liked: Even in a short time, his aggressive instincts are solid for someone so young, and he made several nice back side runs that will pay off in his career.
One thing I didn’t like: Touching the ball three times and running around is about the bare minimum you can ask for. I think he can do more.
Going forward: It was a good sign for Dobbelaere fans that he got into the match, and he should continue to try to show well in his sub appearances to continue to build his experience. Unfortunately, this formation doesn’t have a simple spot for him to slide into, and he will have to figure out how to maximize his minutes in games like this where he is slotted up front.
Joseph Dickerson – 7 | Community – 6.0
This was a well-refereed match, and one where the decisions were made quickly and assertively. Because of this, even though there were 32 combined fouls and five yellows, the game continued to flow without any major delays.
One thing I liked: I agreed with almost all the calls the referee made, as he warned people correctly and punished with cards in a manner that kept control of the match. Most of his cards were quickly given, and the game felt efficient without any long delays for VAR checks or drama.
One thing I didn’t like: Although I agreed with most of the yellows, I thought the one on Arreaga way too soft and a symbol of this referee’s biggest struggle. Dickerson was inconsistent on the call concerning a forward holding the ball up against a charging center back. Against Arreaga (second foul of a total of two in the match) this was an immediate yellow, however Raúl was fouled similarly on three occasions by Michael Boxall without even a whistle on two and no card given on the third. The inconsistency on calling this particular foul was odd.
Going forward: The referees were improved in 2020 (perhaps due to lack of crowds) and this was another performance where I thought the referee did well. I would love to see referee outings continue to be highly rated.
Minnesota United MOTM
Emanuel Reynoso did what must now be considered typical Reynoso things. He was at the heart of Minnesota’s best chances, playing the cutback for Robin Lod’s shot off the near post in the first half, then delivering the free kick that eventually resulted in Roldan’s goal-line heroics in the second.
Carlos Vela will be well rested for the upcoming Sounders game. Prepare yourself for the inevitable LAFC hype.