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Seattle Sounders vs. 2021: End-of-season player ratings, #29-#23

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Lots of potential in this first group, and also Brad Smith.

2021 was a wild year both on and off the field. Outside of the Sounder season, a global pandemic raged on, forcing limited attendance and throwing complete chaos into training, travel, and professional sports in general. Throughout last year, I continued to rate each player for every match. This series of articles will present a recap of Realio’s Ratings for 2021, with players ranked in reverse order from 29 to 1. The ranking is from all MLS matches they played in this season, and I’ve included thoughts on each player going forward. I watch and rewatch the games individually to rate players, and this compendium is meant to summarize an entire season of tabulating this data on a per-game basis.

Please feel free to ask if you want more in-depth data on these players, as I have game-by-game breakdowns, historical data on some players for five-plus years, and tons of other info if you have specific questions.

Please keep in mind a few things when looking at these recaps:

  • Ratings aren’t the only way to judge a player, and these should not be considered “official.” It’s merely how these players came out in my ratings for the season. While higher ranking players are likely better performers, using ratings to say “X player is better than Y” is not the full picture. There are tons of variables that go into ranking different players, so please take them with the requisite grain (or grains) of salt and understand I am attempting to rate against an “MLS average” scale which is continuously evolving.
  • Sample size matters. A lot. Two late-game appearances where a player didn’t look completely out of touch may get him a cumulative 6 rating, but another guy who played 20 games and got a 5.9 may be a better player and more valuable to the team. Please consider how much some guys played and realize how sample size can skew both directions. It’s also important to note that subs tend to start lower on the scale, and some players who played well but only as subs may be ranked lower than you might expect, and vice versa. With the introduction of five available subs per match, cumulative scores dropped slightly as a result, compared to previous seasons.

#29 Ethan Dobbelaere

Realio’s rating: 4.86 in 7 appearances

Community rating: 5.33

MOTM = 0 High = 6 Low = 4

Early in the season, Dobbelaere got chances to fill in for the Sounders, but he struggled. Still very young (19), he’s part of a bumper crop of Defiance players who got playing time with the first team in 2021, but unfortunately, he was the lowest rated player on the 2021 Sounders.

What I liked: A highlight for Ethan came against Austin away, when he started alongside other young backup players and earned a deserved result. Playing as right wingback was a revelation for Dobbelaere; moving back from offensive duties simplified the game and let him ride his athleticism to a solid performance. This allowed him to be a strong defense-minded player first and foremost and he was surprisingly proficient at defending the width. He found success keeping his man in front of him and showed glimpses of overlapping proficiency. From that match: “Once he checked off defense from his to-do list, Double Dare started venturing into offense and, hoo boy, does he suddenly have great service from a full sprint just oozing out of his game.”

What I didn’t like: Prior to the Austin match Dobbelaere wasn’t remotely ready for MLS-level play, showing a solid USL skillset but not being able to translate play into quality for the first team. His success against Austin, a team barely above USL level for much of the season, should be taken with a grain of salt. Just hustling won’t allow much success in the first division, and when playing in attacking areas, Ethan wasn’t creative or productive enough to be on the field. After briefly showing well, he fell out of favor as more accomplished players returned, and he couldn’t work his way back up to the first team.

Moving forward: You never want to write off a 19-year-old, but a few matches into the year Dobbelaere looked like he might fade into the abyss like other young players the Sounders have run out in attacking areas (Bwana, Hopeau, etc). That all changed with a strong outing in Austin and perhaps a rethinking of his potential role going forward. He should work hard in the offseason and follow the path of steady young contributors Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva who found their roles for the Sounders. Learning from Alex Roldan about the right wingback position could help him claw his way into the discussion for an already deep team in 2022.

#28 Obed Vargas

Realio’s rating: 5.00 in 1 appearance

Community rating: 5.79

MOTM = 0 High =5 Low = 5

The Sounders had a ton of injuries this season, forcing a number of hardship calls. Many of them joined to play a memorable win against Austin FC on the 30th of May, including 15-year-old (at the time) Obed Vargas. He was the third youngest player to ever start or play in an MLS match and he looked fine.

What I liked: The Sounders academy and developmental program combined with the Tacoma Defiance is improving exponentially, adding quality players at younger ages every year. Obed is a great example of a talented player that was recognized early, developed for the future, and given a chance to see if he was ready for bigger things. He grew into the match, gained confidence, and showed glimpses of his possible future in his lone appearance.

What I didn’t like: Seventy-seven minutes against a weak Austin team was good for his experience, but Vargas didn’t blow anyone’s mind in this match with an elite performance. He was fairly shy with the ball, often reluctant to hold possession and preferring to let others have the ball. He didn’t wow us with an MLS-ready skill or talent that transcends his age.

Moving forward: The Austin match and a year’s experience with Defiance was enough to earn Vargas a contract with the first team. That’s an excellent trajectory and clearly the team sees a bright future for him. He may not be ready to contribute a ton at the ripe old age of 16 in 2022, but he will train with the first team and get valuable experience as he develops, which is exciting.

#27 Alex Villanueva

Realio’s rating: 5.00 in 2 appearances

Community rating: 5.20

MOTM = 0 High = 5 Low = 5

Alex Villanueva was another hardship callup who came in to fill some time on the main roster. After a quick introduction to the first team against Austin, he earned a second appearance nine days later in a home loss to San Jose. A lithe, aggressive player, Villanueva showed that the depth in this organization is deep and continuous.

What I liked: The talent is definitely there, and Villanueva is only 19 years old. A perfect passing (10/10 career passes) record with 15 touches late in a match, while chasing a tying goal, is a guy keeping possession for a team that desperately needs it.

What I didn’t like: His two appearances in MLS totaled what would generously be called 12 minutes, and he wasn’t beating the first team doors down to get more playing time. His “long” appearance was nine or so minutes late in an attempt to rescue a home point against San Jose in July and he was clearly pressing hard, which translated to very uneven play. Committing unnecessary fouls due to aggression and some youthful decision-making didn’t show great discipline.

Moving forward: Finding quality on the left side can be difficult, and Alex performed well there in his cameo against San Jose. His speed and reflexes are ready for MLS, and he didn’t get beaten when asked to defend. He doesn’t look ready to play for the Sounders first team consistently, but he’s young and has a few skills that are valuable to the Club. This next year will be a big one for Villanueva as he takes the next step in his development.

#26 Jordy Delem

Realio’s rating: 5.00 in 4 appearances

Community rating: 5.53

MOTM = 0 High = 5 Low = 5

Within an up-and-down season in general for the Sounders, one of the understated tragedies was the injury that shortened Delem’s year. He only had three sub appearances and one ill-fated eight-minute start in 2021. One of the nicest and most well-liked Sounders, Delem had come off some strong international play and was poised to slot into the new formation at a variety of positions. Jordy could add a strong defensive ethos in the midfield, but could also have fit into the back three, offering pace and mobility at a wide centerback position. Unfortunately, none of this happened, as he was injured early in the year and was out for almost all of 2021.

What I liked: Still under 30, there’s no reason to think he can’t recover from his knee injury. In the short time he played he gave a different look than other Sounders options in the defensive midfield, offering strong, hard challenges and a more “defense first” mentality that could open up more offensive minded teammates around him to push forward. It’s unlikely that this need has disappeared. He also earned his first start of the year at a centerback position, and that is another avenue for him to prolong his Sounders career.

What I didn’t like: The injury removed a valuable depth piece from the Sounders and a year of career from a competent player. With the formation change and the injuries to teammates, there would have been many opportunities for Delem to pick up more minutes, and likely starts. His ability to play centerback was never tested and he couldn’t add to his value by showing that off. He missed a big opportunity to show MLS quality at multiple positions. Would the season have ended better with another veteran option at defensive midfield? Could some guys who played more than expected have been able to rest? Could Delem have developed into a hard tackling, mobile outside centerback and been a key veteran presence? This season didn’t answer those questions as Jordy watched from the stands and others stepped in to fulfill those needs.

Moving forward: Delem, as far as I know, is healing and will be back next season. He seems like a great guy, loved by teammates and still capable of large minutes, as long as that’s as a defense first player who shouldn’t be asked to create. Unfortunately, he may have been passed on the depth chart by cheaper, younger, domestic players. If he returns to Seattle and is able to put his ACL tear behind him, he could have a role, but the window is very small. Showing versatility across the backline and in defensive central areas will be key to his Sounders career continuing.

#25 Brad Smith

Realio’s rating: 5.14 in 28 appearances

Community rating: 5.79

Regular Season: 5.15 in 27 appearances — Playoff: 5.00 in 1 appearance

MOTM = 0 High = 8 Low = 4

In theory, the 2021 formation change looked like an enormous opportunity for Smith. Freed of specific defensive duties, the wingback position Coach Schmetzer played Brad in would allow him to race forward and join the attack, utilizing speed and off-ball movement. In practice, Smith started strong and then fell off massively, ending with perhaps the most underwhelming Sounders 2021 performance. He failed to live up to expectations, with a dismal last few months of the season tempering any future plans.

What I liked: Smith started well, earning three goals and an assist in his first six matches and the majority of his highest ratings. This came on the back of 15 shots and .3xG/g in those matches. Brad made the most of his opportunities, getting forward into the attack and jumping on loose balls on the backside of play. This earned him a 6.16 overall rating in those matches as Smith added value to the team.

What I didn’t like: After those first six matches, Smith fell off a cliff. Some of his previous scoring wasn’t consistently replicable, but Brad’s chance creation was dismal for the next 21 games as well. He ended with 0g/3a for the remainder of the season, and in those matches he earned a cumulative 4.86 rating from me. Without scoring the low percentage chances that had boosted his previous ratings, the holes in his play stood out. Smith’s lack of defensive presence was a consistently massive issue. The offensive options for Brad were one-dimensional runs up the line and hopeful crosses. Perhaps the worst parts of his play in 2021 were the times he got into great spots and flubbed the penultimate touch, missing a wide-open teammate on multiple occasions. The season ended miserably for Smith in the playoffs and was indicative of his struggles:

Fifty-eight percent passing on 91 touches! That is just deplorable and illustrates how poorly he was able to integrate into the team’s attack. Sometimes he couldn’t get out of the defense, others he stepped on the ball and refused to attack when Seattle finally had a numbers advantage. He beat the trap beautifully in the 43rd minute and got on the end of an over-the-top pass only to fumble a cross, wasting a great Jordan Morris run that left the Sounders and most fans with their heads in their hands.

Moving forward: It was pretty clear that Jimmy Medranda had passed Smith on the outside left depth chart by the end of 2021, but injuries and consistency for Seattle have left that role wide open once again going into 2022. Having briefly been an offensive weapon on the width, Brad will have to prove he can consistently be an option if he wants to see the field again. His only success is in a narrow role where he runs without the ball into space, depending on others to find him and make runs off his speed. This is a limited, but also valuable commodity for a deep team to have as a bench weapon or change of look. In the last two-thirds of the 2021 season, Smith did not meet expectations, and he needs to earn his high salary to remain on the team.

#24 Jordan Morris

Realio’s rating: 5.33 in 3 appearances

Community rating: 6.12

Regular Season: 5.00 in 2 appearances — Playoff: 6.00 in 1 appearance

MOTM = 0 High = 6 Low = 5

Earning the same rating as Smith is Morris. It’s surprising he’s even on this list, as he was expected to miss the entire season after an ACL tear in the offseason. But Jordan worked extremely hard to rehab, returning for three matches and even earning a playoff start. His ratings were low, as he was a late sub throughout his return which skewed his ratings down.

What I liked: Morris playing at all was amazing, but he also earned a 6 in his only start, the RSL playoff match. He wasn’t dominant, but any concerns about him losing a step, or being completely ineffective after seven months off were dispelled by some excellent flashes of the talent we remembered in the playoff match. Seattle had its best success against RSL (two shots, two key passes) when running through Jordan’s direct play, and he did not show any lasting effects from his injury. Seeing his motivation to rapidly return again from devastating injury was inspiring.

What I didn’t like: Losing Jordan Morris for the entire season was expected in the preseason, based on an assumption that he would transfer overseas. A devastating second ACL tear must have been soul-crushing for a young player with massive potential. In his healthy seasons, Morris has shown excellent growth, but unfortunately questions about durability have to be raised. When he returned to the lineup in short spurts late, it was clear he was rusty and didn’t fit the formation well, which raises a lot more questions than it answers.

Moving forward: Morris has a role for Seattle in 2022, but there are questions about what that looks like. Can he return to his 10g7a numbers from pre-pandemic/post-first-ACL surgery? How does Jordan best fit into the lineup? Is it up front in a dual forward role, offset, wide wing play, or something new? Jordan’s skills force themselves onto the field, and you have to find a role for his talents, but it will be interesting to see what form that takes.

#23 Danny Leyva

Realio’s rating: 5.33 in 24 appearances

Community rating: 5.71

MOTM = 0 High = 7 Low = 5

Leyva had 24 regular season appearances, which is a little surprising since it seemed like he faded into the background this year. This included seven starts. He is still only 18 years old, and he continued to develop, showing a high floor with a few glimpses of a high ceiling as well.

What I liked: After losing a year to injury, Leyva carved out a role in 2021 as a possession midfielder. Against San Jose I said this: Schmetzer’s genius was demonstrated when Leyva, hot off a confidence-inspiring substitution in a pivotal match one game ago, returned to the starting lineup and was fantastic. Eighty-eight percent passing, 54 touches, a shot, and two interceptions, Danny was excellent in a central defensive pairing that is good for the future and for now. Perhaps more important from that match was that he was paired with Josh Atencio centrally and the two worked well together, showcasing excellent cohesion.

What I didn’t like: After losing a year to injury, Leyva was passed by Atencio on the depth chart and was reduced to a bench role for most of the year. Danny showed some possession play, but the exciting attacking and incisive passing we had previously seen glimpses of were largely absent. He had a few strong defensive outings, but his lack of speed was exposed centrally on a number of occasions. This can be exploited unless he learns to take better angles and has less reliance on a surprisingly aggressive defensive streak.

Moving forward: Leyva remains in the long-term midfield plans for Seattle, but 2021 was a big year in his development. No longer the young guy with potential, Danny is a veteran who will be pushed by younger developmental projects. Remember, 2021 was his first full season on the first team and he has near-unlimited potential. His body of work showed excellent progression, but it might have been more appreciated had a few other young players not taken equally large steps forward.