SEATTLE — One of the persistent criticisms of the Seattle Sounders under Brian Schmetzer is that they’re often only as good as their health. When they’ve got everyone available, they’re prone to go on runs that take them to MLS Cup. When they’re missing someone like Nicolás Lodeiro, the thinking goes, they tend to struggle.
The degree to which that’s true has probably always been overstated, but there’s a logic that’s hard to deny.
It’s also why a lot of pundits assumed this year would represent a step back. Not only did they lose three potential starters from last year’s team, but they’d also be playing without Jordan Morris for the year. Further compounding the problem was Lodeiro’s absence. Heck, they’ve not even started Fredy Montero — the nominal replacement for Morris — who’s been nursing a quad injury himself.
If the first two weeks provided signs that those concerns were overblown, Sunday’s thorough victory over the previously perfect LA Galaxy was a complete refutation. The Sounders not only shut down the league’s best attacking player over the first two weeks — Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez was held to just a single shot — they were also consistently finding themselves in dangerous positions and probably could have added a couple goals to their 3-0 win.
They did this all not just without Lodeiro and Morris, but were also missing Josh Atencio, who failed a pregame fitness test. Through the first two weeks, Atencio had effectively taken Lodeiro’s spot in the starting lineup, a responsibility which fell to veteran Kelyn Rowe against the Galaxy.
Rowe responded with his best performance of the year and probably the best of his career, at least from a defensive perspective. Although data only goes back to 2018, Rowe had a career high in tackles (6) and pressures (42), according to FBRef.com. That went along with a tidy 31-for-38 passing and three shots, one of which only stayed out thanks to a couple rather unlucky bounces off the woodwork.
Rowe made his mark in MLS as a mostly offensive player, at one point even looking like he may have a future as a United States national team regular while playing anywhere across the attacking band of the midfield. He’s moved around quite a bit over the last few years, seeing time as a full back and deeper-lying midfielder. But even then, he’s rarely been asked to carry the type of defensive load he had in this game.
“It’s another great piece to our roster,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said of the Seattle-area native, who signed over the offseason. “Bringing him back home, you saw the banners, he’s excited to be here, but it shows in his play. He did great, he did super.”
Rowe’s emergence as another perfectly good option in the Sounders midfield is creating quite an interesting situation for Schmetzer. Between Rowe, Atencio, Cristian Roldan, João Paulo and Lodeiro, the Sounders have five versatile central midfielders who are all two-way threats. To add to that group, Fredy Montero looks most likely to be deployed as more of a No. 10 than pure forward, and even Will Bruin has been most effective when dropping into the midfield, serving more as a facilitator than shooter. (There’s also Danny Leyva looking poised to work his way into the rotation.)
Not only does this give the Sounders lots of options in terms of formations and how to best use their talent, it also allows them to play with a certain dynamism that was sometimes missing even last year when they were having their best offensive season since 2014.
In talking about the attack, Schmetzer pointed out that on the Sounders’ second goal, the two players farthest up the field were wingbacks Alex Roldan and Brad Smith. Bruin and Raúl Ruidíaz, meanwhile, started the sequence with a clever interchange near the midfield stripe.
“How are teams going to plan for that?” Schmetzer seemingly dared opposing coaches. “We pose problems for teams in the attacking half based on tactics and personnel.”
That the Sounders have gotten goals or assists from nine different players in three games — none of whom are Lodeiro — speaks to this versatility. That the Sounders are second in MLS with 5.8 xG and 2.8 xGD suggests it’s not just a good run of finishing, either.
Adding Lodeiro to the mix, which we saw a glimpse of during the final 25 minutes on Sunday, should have opposing coaches even more worried.