An old axiom ‘From pain comes strength’ pretty aptly describes the last three months for the Seattle Sounders, in both a literal and figurative sense. Coming into the season, with a flat salary cap due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the Sounders were a bit handcuffed. With a veteran roster filled with talented pieces all over the field, the ability to freely spend in the winter — something that goes against the philosophy of General Manager Garth Lagerwey anyway — was limited.
All DP spaces were accounted for the year, and coming off of a failed MLS Cup run, raises due existing players further restricted whatever maneuvering room was available. The loan of Jordan Morris and sale of Henry Wingo brought some breathing space, but given the state of the team, a summer spending spree always seemed more likely.
Despite those obstacles, the Sounders got off to a rousing start in 2021, with a stingy defense and timely scoring leading them to an unprecedented undefeated run in MLS. As always, things go well until they don’t.
Slowly but surely, the injury bug turned into a full-blown crisis, as Stefan Frei, Will Bruin, Nouhou and Nico Lodeiro went down for significant periods of time with serious injuries. Add in the international absences, and it’s a wonder the Sounders were able to begin the month of August at the top of the Western Conference.
Still, the attrition rate has proven unsustainable even for coach Brian Schmetzer’s abilities, as Seattle’s run atop the West has limped to an end, with a 1-3-1 record in the last five games. But from crisis has provided several silver linings, with a youth movement, a shrinking injury list and new reinforcements on the way.
Whether by plan or by circumstance, the Sounders began the year with several promising homegrown signings who finally broke through and played significant minutes with the First team. These were far from 10-minute cameos at the tail-end of games that were already decided. Josh Atencio made a splash, starting the opening match against Minnesota United and earning near-universal plaudits for his play. A quad injury sidelined him for the better part of a month, and Danny Leyva, who made a similar splash in the 2019 season, stepped in, seemingly recovered from a 2020 season lost to injury.
And when the injury crisis hit its zenith, Schmetzer took a wild roll of the dice and started five teenagers in the heart of Texas. And all they did was win the game. That the likes of a 16-year-old Reed Baker-Whiting could play nearly 90 minutes on the road and not look out of place was surely a moment of vindication for the Sounders organization, who completely revamped their development system in 2015 with only the hope that it would begin to produce the talent that appears ready to finally emerge. “That was a breakthrough,” Lagerwey said. “Start five teenagers — we’ve been working on this for years, pushing these kids, getting them read. I do think we’ve cracked the seal.”
The nature of the Austin victory is something Lagerwey clearly takes exceptional pride in. To hear him talk about it is to listen to a proud father watch as his children graduate. After all, one never knows how these investments — financial, emotional — will pay off. Sometimes they don’t. So when they do, one can forgive the Sounders brass a bit of preening. “We’re on the path to player development,” Lagerwey said. “And there’s no turning back.”
Of course, high-level sports is a “what have you done for me lately” type of gig, and resting on one’s laurels is a great way have the recliner turn into a hot seat. So even with cap-imposed restrictions and Covid limitations, the Sounders had to keep pushing forward, looking for ways to improve the team now and for the future. Given the team’s injury issues, Lagerwey said that adding some flexibility and depth in the midfield was something that drew them to Nicolas Benezet, with whom he became familiar in part after the 2019 MLS Cup, which Benezet started for Toronto. “We wanted to add a veteran who could help right away,” Lagerwey said. “He’s coming here for the stretch run. We’re really excited to get a player of his pedigree.”
While Benezet was the proverbial toe in the water, Léo Chú is a definite splash for the Sounders, and represents a change in the way the they do business. The Sounders historically have focused most of their resources on established players in their prime and though they’ve certainly spent significantly, those higher fees have generally bought peace of mind, knowing that they were getting quality in return. Chú represents a bit of a gamble, with the Sounders having spent $2.5 million for 80% of the rights to a player who has not established himself as of yet. “This is not Lodeiro, it’s not Ruidiaz and it’s not a guy you’re banking on turning around your season,” Lagerwey said “It’s a guy that you hope will come in and develop.”
The best revenge is living well
Fortunately for the Sounders, they’re not in a position to solely rely on precocious youngsters to come good. Rough patches aside, the injury crisis did allow the Sounders to get their talented young players significant playing time, and a second place standing is hardly worth pushing the panic button over, especially when you look at the returning wounded. “We’re going to have the best transfer window of any team in MLS, which has more to do with the five guys that are coming back,” Lagerwey said.
Earlier than expected, designated player Nicolas Lodeiro made his return in a 10-minute cameo against FC Dallas, and Will Bruin has also seen some substitute appearances after surgery to repair a torn meniscus. While Nouhou’s injury continues to confound, both Schmetzer and Lagerwey seem confident the All-Star defender will return soon. Stefan Frei was seen working out at Lumen Field prior to the FC Dallas match as well, and Brad Smith and AB Cissoko have also returned.
“Now we need to get the big dogs back and we’ve added a couple of pieces and hopefully it’s the right recipe to try to make a run at a championship,” Lagerwey said.
“Who knows, maybe we’ll see Jordan [Morris] back.”