When the Seattle Sounders released their training camp roster last week there were 12 unsigned players on it. That could seem like a lot, but those dozen players aren’t in training camp because the roster overall lacks depth. There are already 27 players under contract.
Those dozen are there for a few reasons — to fill out the ability to field two distinct lineups while national team competitions are ongoing; to help advance the growth of youngsters from Tacoma Defiance or the Academy; and to discover if one or two could fill crisis roles if there are a dozen absences at some point in 2022.
The Ideal XI is rather obvious. The only uncertainty is the exact roles for the band of three. When healthy the 11 names are basically a lock.
Perusing the overall depth chart, the strength of the squad is rather obvious. There’s no wonder why Seattle are the betting favorites. Their bench features two players among the top seven active scorers in the league. Thanks to the health issues of 2021 the young backups in goal prevention have thousands of minutes of MLS play. Add in a dose of Léo Chú, the dynamic U22 player, and things look great.
There are a few key learnings from putting together the depth chart.
Band of Three
That Band of Three is wicked. Adding Albert Rusnák to the return of Jordan Morris and Nicolás Lodeiro may be unfair to the rest of the league. Expecting someone to write them down with firm positions may be unfair to an author.
Only Rusnák has seen minutes in The Jimi Hendrix Kit so far this preseason. He’s been mostly a central player with slightly more time on the left than the right. Jordan Morris plays mostly on the right with the national team, but mostly on the left with the Sounders. Nico covers so much ground he might as well be a free safety.
Expect those three to shift, a lot. They will be fluid because that’s what Albert and Nico are both best at. Even Jordan can go central, playing as a forward and flipping the 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-2-2 for a bit. Numerical designations are always an approximation. That will be more true for the Sounders of 2022 than ever before.
Thanks to the discovery of Nouhou’s stunning near-Defender of the Year qualities as a centerback, Alex Roldan’s strength in the attack, and Jordan Morris’ ability to stretch defenses, asymmetry should be expected. There may be times — thanks to João Paulo and Cristian Roldan’s ability to shift wide, surge forward, and defend deep — that the asymmetry could show up as a defacto 3-3-3-1 or even 3-3-1-3. The tactical flexibility of the outfielders will be a joy.
Like all formations, an asymmetric one leaves gaps, and going asymmetric on the fly could leave surprising gaps. But, the Sounders shouldn’t have problems with that. There’s only one new player among their top 19. Ten of the starters were part of the squad in 2020, which was two years ago if the pandemic has broken your sense of time.
They should understand that the right gap will be wide behind Alex and the left gap will be wide in front of Nouhou. The three central channels could have gaps depending on which of JP and Cristian are forward, or there won’t be a gap at all there.
9-Man Bench Set?
One of the secondary strengths of the lack of significant roster turnover is that the bench is close to being set, aside from any health caveats.
K — Cleveland
D — Medranda (also DM/AM), Cissoko
DM — Atencio (CB), Rowe (everywhere)
AM — Montero (F), Léo Chú
F — Bruin
That eight-man bench includes players who would start on other teams and has some flexibility for the five substitutes to change the game. The strongest players left out are Sam Adeniran, Danny Leyva, and Dylan Teves. That’s tight competition for the 9th spot on the gameday roster.
With that top 22 being fairly well set the teen depth on the Sounders roster is going to struggle for time. MLS NEXT Pro will have a small schedule, and so it should be expected that a few go out on loan.
Oshan is reporting that’s the plan for Ethan Dobbelaere, who isn’t in Tucson at this time. Loans may make sense for a few others. That decision is a delicate balance to see what’s best for the player. Training with the Sounders while not really playing turned Josh Atencio into a guy that sporadically pops into the Player of the Week conversation. Some loans work out (Sota Kitahara, Azriel Gonzalez); others don’t (Shandon Hopeau, Trey Muse).
Honestly, the loan-or-not decisions facing Lagerwey & Co. may be the most difficult choices to be made this preseason.
Competition for crisis control
There are up to 3 roster spots open and a loan or two would open up more. Sounder at Heart does not expect the Sounders to fill 100% of their 30-man MLS roster when the season starts. Even having the 27+ under control is abnormal for Lagerwey.
But, there’s a good chance at one or two signings from the trialist and/or Defiance group.
Seattle could use a replacement-level centerback and a replacement level fullback/wingback (especially if Dobbelaere is loaned).
At centerback the options are Jackson Ragen, Achille Robin, Hal Uderitz, and Eric Kinzner. Ragen is in control of that group.
At fullback/wingback, Joe Hafferty has an early lead over Randy Mendoza, Sota Kitahara and Cody Baker.
What’s going on with Defiance’s roster?
MLS NEXT Pro is a big change. A few players that may have stayed with the org if the team was in the USL Championship have moved on. No official roster is out yet, but there are indications as to who will be part of the future primarily based on who was in camp with the Sounders. Only Ray Serrano has left that group and most are still with the Sounders as they prep.
The biggest surprise may be that Randy Mendoza, 25, is still with the group. One of the elder statesman of Tacoma last year, his season was cut short when he suffered a concussion and broken jaw in a match against Sacramento. Now healthy, he’s training with the first team and even started the preseason friendly against Portland. If he doesn’t make the Sounders MLS roster he may just take up the leadership mantel of Mueller and Estrada for Tacoma’s 2022 season.