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Six questions Sounders must answer this summer

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There are no prizes for hitting the quarter pole of the season in the lead.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

By any reasonable metric, the Seattle Sounders have so far exceeded expectations by a pretty healthy margin. Even after two disappointing ties at home against very beatable opponents, they still lead the Supporters’ Shield race and have the best goal-difference in the league by a healthy margin.

But there is no prize for being the best team at the rough quarter point of the season. If anything, all the Sounders have really accomplished at this point is raising the bar for what fans will accept as a satisfying end to the season. What was once almost written off as a rebuilding year now would be deeply disappointing without some sort of silverware.

Here are the six biggest questions the Sounders must answer this summer in order for that to happen:

Can the depth hold up?

The Sounders opened the season with only 23 players healthy and available and still only have 16 players with at least 2,000 minutes of career MLS experience, but they have used those players well. Brian Schmetzer has given 18 different players at least one start and 16 players have at least 120 minutes of playing time, none of whom are named Nicolas Lodeiro or Jordan Morris. They’ve also played the last three games without goalkeeper Stefan Frei. The depth pieces have mostly held up well and the Sounders have played at a level that would have been considered high even if those three Best XI candidates had been available throughout.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that none of those three are back before the end of summer, which means the Sounders need those depth pieces to keep playing at a high level if they’re to continue to contend.

That likely means the Sounders will need even more quality minutes out of their Homegrown Players, for others to continue out-producing their current rate, or for some of their veterans to step up their production.

Player to watch: Kelyn Rowe. Acquired purely as a depth piece, Rowe is one of eight players to play in every game so far. Even more surprising, he has six starts, none of which have come as a fullback (where he seemed most likely to feature). Rowe hasn’t starred but he has never looked out of place. If he can continue to do that, it would be a huge boon to the Sounders.

What’s going on with the No. 10 spot?

The one position where the Sounders have not had their first-choice starter all year is at the No. 10. That’s mostly been filled by Cristian Roldan, who has provided a different, but effective, look in most of his appearances. But if he’s called up by the USMNT for the Gold Cup, he could miss a big chunk of July and August. With Lodeiro’s return still up in the air, this has the potential to be a significant area of concern.

The good news is that Raúl Ruidíaz won’t be going to the Copa America, which at least gives the Sounders some options. One possibility would be to deploy Fredy Montero in the No. 10 spot behind both Ruidíaz and Will Bruin. This wouldn’t be too extreme of a departure from where he normally plays, but would require quite a bit more defensive responsibility than he’s used to.

More realistically, the Sounders could play Montero alongside someone like Rowe in a 3-4-2-1 formation. That would provide a bit more balance while not sacrificing a ton of offense.

Player to watch: Montero. Assuming Roldan misses some time, the Sounders are going to need Montero on the field. This stretch of games is basically the entire reason Montero was brought back, and if he can add a few goals and assists, that would go a long way toward getting the Sounders through the summer reasonably intact.

Where do the goals come from?

The Sounders rank second in MLS in goals scored (14) and are a respectable sixth in xG (11.7), but there are some reasons to be a bit worried. Chief among them is the relative lack of production out of Bruin and Roldan, who have combined for just 1 goal and 3 assists in nearly 1,200 minutes. That’s simply not enough considering they are two of the three starters deployed in primarily offensive positions.

To be clear, Bruin and Roldan have done a lot right this year. Their movement and ability to bring others into the offense has been key to the team’s overall success, most notably benefitting wingbacks Brad Smith and Alex Roldan, who have combined for 3 goals and 3 assists. History suggests Smith and Alex Roldan can’t keep up that pace, but as long as the more central players can pick up their production that shouldn’t be as big of an issue.

Player to watch: Bruin. In some ways, no player has shown more tactical growth than the forward most assume is just a big body. But for all of Bruin’s ability to bring teammates into the game, even he’ll admit that he needs to be scoring goals to properly fulfill his role.

Which youngsters grow into bigger roles?

Traditionally one of the most experienced teams in MLS, the Sounders Academy has never played a bigger role in the First Team than they have this year. Four Homegrown Players — all of whom are still teenagers — have featured this year and have combined for four starts.

Although this was the plan all along, it was somewhat exacerbated by unexpected injuries. Schmetzer has been forced to give minutes to unproven players, yet he’s managed to do so in a controlled way that has set them up for success.

At some point, though, Schmetzer will have more veteran options and his disposal and those minutes are going to be even more contested.

Players to watch: Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva. Atencio was extremely good in his first two appearances but hasn’t played since and isn’t likely to return until June 23. Leyva has earned one start but has appeared in all but two matches. If the Sounders are to continue on anything like this pace, the team probably needs to get something like 2,000 minutes of reasonably high performance out of the pair.

Is the defense really this good?

No team has been harder to score on this year than the Sounders, who have allowed just three goals, and none from the run of play. They probably aren’t going to become the first team to allow fewer than 15 goals in a season (the record is 20, for what it’s worth), but there’s no reason to think this defense can’t continue at an elite level as long as they stay healthy. The advanced stats suggest they’ve gotten a little lucky, but their penalty-adjusted 0.91 xGA per 90 is still third best in MLS.

Nouhou and Yeimar Gomez Andrade have both been playing at Defender of the Year levels and are showing no signs of being exposed as the three centerback formation seems to fit their strengths almost perfectly. Shane O’Neill and Xavier Arreaga have each had their ups and downs in the middle of that formation, but have mostly been pretty good themselves, too.

The big question, at least for now, is can Stefan Cleveland hold up when the tests invariably become more consistent?

Player to watch: Cleveland. Although the Sounders are “only” 1-0-2 in his three starts, that’s no fault of his. The only goal he’s allowed was off a penalty and he’s come up big on the few occasions he’s been asked to.

What position do Sounders address with a signing?

Ever since the start of preseason, the Sounders have made it reasonably clear that the plan was to wait until summer before making an impact foreign signing. The Sounders should have the ability to make one signing through the U-22 Initiative and possibly have the resources to add one other impact player. While that seems straightforward enough, it’s not at all clear how the Sounders intend to use those spots.

The initial thinking this offseason was that the Sounders would likely target a winger to either supplement or replace Jordan Morris. But the emergence of the 3-5-2 has created some doubt. It now looks like Morris will eventually come back, but there’s no reason the Sounders can’t play him as a second forward.

The shorter term need is probably someone who can be a bit more flexible in the attack, either as playmaker or as a second forward, or maybe even a wingback.

Player to watch: As good as Alex Roldan has been as a wingback, if he starts to fall off the Sounders could target his position for an upgrade or a longer term investment. Right now, Roldan’s best offensive weapon is his crossing from deep, but he probably needs to show a bit more variety if he’s going to have long-term success.