#6 Stefan Frei
Realio’s rating: 6.39 in 18 appearances
Community rating: 6.69
Regular Season: 6.41 in 17 appearances — Playoff: 6.00 in 1 appearance
MOTM = 0 High = 8 Low =5
Stefan Frei was part of a combined Seattle effort that had the fewest MLS goals conceded in 2021. He ended with .94 GAA, a clean sheet every three matches, and total record of 9-4-4, conceding zero goals in 120 additional playoff minutes. Not an overly acrobatic player, Stefan depends on superior positioning and preparation that shouldn’t deteriorate any time soon. Seattle didn’t need him to make any incredible saves, and not needing your keeper to earn a MOTM award over an entire season is a good thing.
What I liked: Frei is a consistent keeper who excels behind a predictable defense. He started out hot before being injured in the San Jose match, where I said this: “Frei combined for his third shutout in five matches, and was immense in holding the clean sheet. Seattle was faced with 15 shots (six on goal), forcing Stef into five saves. He did a bit of everything, making clutch saves, catching in traffic, having a massive 43 touches, and distributing well to mitigate pressure.” Steph makes opponents be nearly perfect to beat him, possessing excellent tactical awareness and decision making. These, along with a revamped Sounders defense, was a stingy combination. He rarely makes a mistake that puts his team in danger. Happy to just clear it long, Frei is an elite game manager and leader from the back who brings out the best in those around him and rises to the occasion when necessary.
What I didn’t like: Getting injured by his own teammate and having a subsequent blood clotting issue was scary. He is 35 years old, which is getting up there in soccer keeper years, and any prolonged absence from the lineup is cause for concern. He has been a reliable performer for Seattle, starting 97 percent of their MLS matches (220/226) since arriving in 2014, so the team didn’t know what they looked like without Stefan until this year. While not a liability with his feet, Frei isn’t used as an outlet from the back as much as other modern keepers, as his skills are limited to a touch or two and long clearance. Because of his penchant for launching clear in the back, his passing percentage was low. There wasn’t a match where Stefan completely dominated and willed his team to points via saving everything, and most every shot that should have scored did (and vice versa).
Moving forward: Frei was excellent before injury as Sounders’ keeper, but he faltered some down the stretch after returning to the lineup. He should be good for another five years of high-quality goalkeeping, and his freak injury is behind him. Seattle has a number of quality prospects available, but as long as Stefan is healthy and wants to be here, he’s locked in as the number one keeper for the foreseeable future. Having CCL congestion raises the issue of whether team will prioritize his starts to keep him healthy and due to the depth of the goalkeeping corps.
#4 Raúl Ruidíaz
Realio’s rating: 6.67 in 27 appearances
Community rating: 7.00
Regular Season: 6.73 in 26 appearances — Playoff: 5.00 in 1 appearance
MOTM = 3 High = 8 Low = 5
Raúl Ruidíaz entered 2021 looking to continue his steady progression up Realio’s year-end ratings, but a late-season injury slowed him down. When healthy, he was a top striker in MLS, able to score from anywhere and combine flawlessly with teammates. Possessing a nose for the goal and ability to be almost invisible around the box, Raúl is faster than opponents and finishes true from nearly any angle. In 2021 he carried the scoring weight for Seattle with 17 goals.
What I liked: For much of the season Ruidíaz led, or was near the top of the league scoring. He did this in exciting fashion, putting the ball in the net in multiple ways. He was goal-dangerous every single time he touched the ball. Nothing highlighted this ability more than the Austin match. After the youth fought valiantly for 54 minutes, Raúl entered and 13 minutes later tried a ridiculous shot … and it went in for the game winner. The audacity to even consider a shot like this was amazing, but then Ruidíaz executed it so phenomenally. Finding an errant clearance 40 yards from goal, he laced a volley with enough power and topspin to beat the opposing goalkeeper. Realizing there was a chance was amazing; to perfectly execute in this tiny window was sublime. He does this sort of thing consistently, while also finishing nearly everything you expect him to.
What I didn’t like: His lowest rating came in the playoff match, where an injured Raúl was unable to start, entering after halftime and only registering three shots for the next 75 minutes. Against a very defensive setup, Ruidíaz struggled to find the ball in good positions, was physically bodied away from goal, and was forced to nose around for scraps of possession with little success. This was the culmination of a disappointing second half of the season that saw him miss eight of the final 12 matches. When he was healthy, he scored very high in the ratings, but he broke down physically at the end of the year. The Sounders were so reliant on his scoring that when he was gone, the team struggled to fill the void. He somehow didn’t earn a single assist on the year, which is a mind-boggling stat.
Moving forward: Ruidíaz was in contention for the golden boot award for much of the season, and remains one of the best strikers in the entire league. As rumors swirl about potential discontent over salary or contract, it would be a devastating blow for Raúl to not be on the field. As long as he returns, Seattle will expect double digit goals, and nothing from his output suggests he is remotely slowing down. Adding more creative pieces from the attacking band in support of Raúl is likely to increase his chance creation and scoring output even more.
#4 Xavier Arreaga
Realio’s rating: 6.67 in 27 appearances
Community rating: 6.40
Regular Season: 6.65 in 26 appearances — Playoff: 7.00 in 1 appearance
MOTM = 3 High = 8 Low = 5
Casual observers may be surprised at number 4, but center back Xavier Arreaga turned in a stellar 6.67 cumulative rating to tie with Ruidíaz. Arreaga has grown immensely in his short time in Seattle, improving from a 6.13 (10th) ranking in 2020. This growth was helped by a tactical formation that highlighted his strengths, and by an end-of-season run that saw Arreaga as the best defender (and second highest rated player on the team) over the second half of the season.
What I liked: Xavi grew into his playing confidence this year, and it’s important to note that he is just 27. Slotted centrally, the Sounders formation was perfect for Arreaga’s skillset. His ability to direct traffic from the back, tackle hard, and organize the defense centrally was good; his incisive passing and distribution from the back was revolutionary. Tidy with the ball, he managed an impressive 89 percent completion rate from the back, while at the same time finding vertical passes and angles that jumpstarted the offense into transition from back to front. His ability to dribble to create space and unlock passing lanes was on display, with unique foot skills and a new confidence that improved Seattle’s possession and transition from defense. Arreaga was a force in the air, finding multiple headers on set pieces offensively, while winning nearly every defensive aerial duel. Seattle’s away match in Columbus came amidst a six-match streak where Arreaga rated over a 7 each outing. He earned MOTM in Ohio for doing a little of everything: “There’s a beautiful leadership quality that comes out when you shrug off multiple ridiculous and painful fouls, score a goal, and urge your team to more. Xavi never gave up, fighting for a header late and then bodying off a challenge and forcing home an equalizer. He wasn’t satisfied with a tie; he spurred his teammates on to be part of an almost immediate 20-pass sequence that saw Seattle earn all three points.” This string of performances raised the bar for Arreaga, and he maintained that standard through the rest of the season and the playoff match for an outstanding year.
What I didn’t like: There were some growing pains for Xavier, especially early in the year when Seattle was feeling out the formation, and he was passed up for starts by teammates. He missed some matches in the middle of the year for international play and injury, and his penchant for being a little too confident arose a few times. His lone below-average outing on the year was against SKC, as Seattle tried him on the right with Yeimar central, resulting in a mess in the back and Arreaga punished for poor positioning. He was also penalized immediately for trying to dribble against a strong Mexican team in the Leagues Cup final, an example of some of his bad habits that still crop up from time to time.
Moving forward: Arreaga’s emergence this season was a revelation, and is a thrilling prospect going forward. Especially exciting was his consistency, as he moved past his youthful mistakes and found a permanent home centrally. He made fewer big mistakes in 2021, and his luck started to even out as his excellent play was highlighted in the middle of the field. The Sounders can rely on Xavi’s passing acumen to distribute from central areas as well as his rock-solid defensive work rate. Seattle has incredible starting quality on the defensive line going into 2022, as Arreaga has come into his own and is in the conversation as best defender on the team.