The 2021 season began with a host of questions swirling around the Seattle Sounders. A lot of those questions centered around who would start at various positions, but there were smaller ones, too. We’re still just two games into the season but I think we’re at least starting to come to a better understanding of what this team has.
Here is a partial list of some of the things I think I now know about them:
Josh Atencio is a “very, very good” MLS player
I’m going to put this one right at the top because I think it qualifies as the biggest revelation and the one I feel most comfortable standing behind. The quotes are there because that’s what Brian Schmetzer actually said about Atencio after his first career start in Week 1. But I think it was solidified in Week 2 after another strong showing against LAFC in Week 2.
While LAFC were missing several of their stars, they still had as good of a starting midfield as anyone in the league with Latif Blessing, Eduard Atuesta and Mark Anthony-Kaye patrolling the middle of the park. Again, Atencio never looked out of place.
He wasn’t as aggressive on the road as he had been at home, covered significantly less ground and didn’t attempt as many progressive passes but he held his own defensively and never seemed to get exposed. Atencio logged the most pressures of anyone in the game (44), which included the second-most successful pressures (14). He also had four successful tackles, which was tied for the second most of anyone in the match. I suspect he’ll go back to the bench once Nicolas Lodeiro is playing — maybe as soon as this week — but Atencio has shown he deserves to get minutes wherever they can find them.
Last week, I talked to him about his development and whether or not last year felt a bit like a waste since he barely played. His answer was illuminating in a way that left me very encouraged about his future:
“The complete opposite, honestly,” he said. “I developed so much last year, just being in this environment day-to-day, getting to train with all of these guys — they’re at such a high level all the time; being in the locker rooms with them — even when I’m not playing, just suiting up and seeing what the atmosphere is like pre-game; being in the training locker room; to learn what it means to be a pro. These guys have been doing it for years and they’re great role models. I learned a lot last year, I felt I grew a lot as a professional, as a player.
“To be able to see the games up close, to suit up, be on the bench and watch these guys play and get a little taste of it here and there prepared more than anything could have.”
Right wingback suits Alex Roldan very well
Even though Alex Roldan entered preseason as the presumed starter, there were plenty of questions about how firm of a grasp he had on the position. It’s hard to imagine the Sounders could have possibly asked for more than he gave them.
Against LAFC, the Sounders’ two best chances came off Roldan crosses, both of which led directly to Raúl Ruidíaz headers. One was saved and ultimately led to Brad Smith’s goal and the other was well placed but Ruidíaz mis-timed his jump a little and hit it over the crossbar.
Roldan is not a player who’s going to drive to the endline and cut it back — like his brother often does — but he’s about as good as anyone at hitting that early cross, and is fourth on the team in shot-creating actions (4). He’s also second on the team in interceptions (8).
More than any numbers can tell you, Roldan just looks confident out there. He’s constantly got his head up looking for attacking passes without being reckless and has yet to face an opponent who has made him look over-matched.
Cristian’s settled in nicely, too
I suspect in a few years the one regret we may have about this time in Cristian Roldan’s career is that he didn’t get the chance to lock down one position. In the meantime, though, I do enjoy watching him master a new one seemingly every season. This year, we’re seeing what he can do with a bit more of an extended run as a de facto No. 10.
Yes, he’s played here before and yes, he’s even had some good runs. But I’d argue that this is the best we’ve seen him play when it looks like he’s a natural part of the offense. Deployed underneath two forwards, we’re seeing Roldan’s strengths — verticality, as Matt Doyle likes to say — without needing the entire offense to run through him like it does when Nicolás Lodeiro is on the field.
Instead, we’re seeing Roldan pop up all over the offensive side of the field. Maybe it’s a late run in behind like the one that resulted in him putting a shot off the post in the first half. Maybe it’s a perfectly weighted pass in the box. Roldan currently leads the Sounders in expected assists (0.9) and is second on the team in passes completed into the final third (4).
He’s probably going to slide back alongside João Paulo once Lodeiro is back, but it’s good to know that the Sounders can remain productive with Roldan deployed this way.
Probably need to sign some attacking depth
I wouldn’t say this is anything like a crisis at this point, but Fredy Montero missing Saturday’s game was a stark reminder that the roster remains a little thin on attacking depth. The only purely attacking option that Schmetzer had available off the bench was Ethan Dobbelaere and as promising as he may be, he’s still someone with fewer than 100 minutes of MLS experience.
I don’t think that means they need to go out and sign someone like Kei Kamara or Dom Dwyer — two veterans currently still available — but it would be good to bring in at least one more option. For me, the obvious choice is Alec Diaz. The Tacoma Defiance forward was the most productive teenager in the USL Championship last year and by all accounts he seems to be doing well during preseason, albeit not with the first team.
If there’s a reason not to sign him it’s that the Sounders feel it’s more important to get him minutes with the Defiance, whose season starts on May 9. But with vaccines now becoming widely available, I suspect the Sounders won’t need to make such a longterm commitment and can likely sign him to the first team now, and only bring him up whenever they’re short on forwards.
Sounders will be contenders, again
Much can obviously change and it’s early, blah, blah, blah, but I feel like the idea that the Sounders were doomed to struggle in the first half has been pretty much put to rest. The Sounders played two of the teams most expected to challenge for Western Conference supremacy and have looked, on the balance, very good.
Sure, you can argue that neither opponent was at entirely full strength, but neither were the Sounders. Lodeiro has yet to play, Montero has only played about 15 minutes and Yeimar Gomez Andrade hasn’t even made a start yet.
All three of those players are likely to play significant roles going forward and there’s every reason to believe the Sounders will be better off with them. In the meantime, they’ve maintained their competitiveness by improving at spots where the questions were biggest. Nouhou seems to have developed into a potentially elite left-sided centerback, Alex Roldan is clearly a starting caliber right wingback, Atencio could end up contending for Young Player of the Year and the spine has proven to be a strength even without three of the players we expected to support it.