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What went wrong and how the Sounders can fix it

Despite the disappointing regular season, the solutions might not be too far off.

Mike Fiechtner / Sounders FC Communications

By any reasonable accounting of history, the Seattle Sounders’ 2022 will eventually be seen almost exclusively for its major success. It might not feel that way right now or even this time next year, but at some point in the not-so-distant future all anyone will really remember about this year will be the Concacaf Champions League title they won.

That achievement will be brought up every time another MLS team comes close to equalling it and every time the Sounders’ achievements are recounted.

The memories we all have of enjoying that ride to the final — of the 70,000 people erupting when Raúl Ruidíaz scored the opener; of the stands being illuminated with phone lights; of the players, coaches and front-office staff climbing into the stands to celebrate with fans — will be with us forever. We all got addicted to sports in search of moments like those, and if we get to experience it once, we should consider ourselves lucky. That we’ve now been allowed to have something like this twice in just four years? It’s frankly a little unreal.

Of course, it doesn’t feel that way right now. As we are all quite aware, the Sounders followed that up with a rather epic collapse. After rebounding from the CCL hangover with 19 points in nine games, the Sounders managed to limp to the finish line with 15 points in their final 17 matches and missed the MLS playoffs for the first time. That was the Sounders’ worst 17-game stretch in their MLS history — yes, even worse than the stretch of games that ultimately got Sigi Schmid fired in 2016 (their worst 17-game stretch that year saw them claim 17 points).

I know it’s been suggested that this slide was a result of the Sounders celebrating too much, that the whole “Summer with the Champs” thing was a bit of a distraction. I won’t say that’s entirely without merit, but I will say that as a fan, it was worth it either way. What fun is winning a trophy as important as the CCL if you’re not going to celebrate it? I’m glad the Sounders leaned in and I thought the ad campaign was brilliant. Did it have to be punctuated with a game against the Portland Timbers? Did the title end up being used as a crutch to explain away poor performances for too long? Maybe.

More broadly, it’s important to recognize that BOTH of these things happened this year. The CCL trophy may have inflated our expectations and papered over some cracks, but it wasn’t some stroke of luck that the Sounders went undefeated in eight games and posted one of the best goal differences in tournament history (+13). It would be equally fallacious to pretend as though the second half of the season was simply a blip caused by João Paulo’s injury (that actually happened 10 games before the slide started) or general tiredness. The Sounders need to have a roster resilient enough to avoid that kind of collapse

I don’t think the Sounders need to be completely torn down and rebuilt, but there were several major problems that will need to be addressed. Keeping in mind that solutions will likely need to be found mostly within the current roster, here’s how this might play out:

Problem 1: Lack of scoring

During Brian Schmetzer’s tenure, the Sounders have been a good, if not necessarily great offensive team. Over his first 172 games in charge from 2016-2021, the Sounders scored an average of 1.60 goals per game, and never fewer than 1.50 in any season. This year, that average dropped to 1.38 goals. That translates to about 6-8 fewer goals over the course of the season.

Raúl Ruidíaz led the Sounders with just nine goals, the fewest from a team leader since Eddie Johnson scored nine in 2013. Coincidentally, that’s eight fewer than Ruidíaz scored last year when he played about 850 more minutes. Put another way, players other than Ruidíaz scored almost exactly the same number of goals this year as last year. This despite the Sounders effectively getting full seasons out of Nicolás Lodeiro and Jordan Morris, both of whom missed most of 2021.

The lack of secondary scoring was particularly obvious in the second half of the season and was maybe best epitomized by Morris and Cristian Roldan. Going into July, Roldan and Morris had combined for 12 goals and 16 assists in 32 combined appearances. From July-October they combined for 3 goals and 1 assist in a combined 29 appearances.

What to do about it: At the risk of stating the obvious, the Sounders were far too reliant on Ruidíaz to carry the scoring burden. That problem was basically papered over in 2021 as long as Ruidíaz was healthy, but first became apparent down the stretch that year before growing into an even more obvious problem this year.

One thought would be to find a more reliable backup, but Fredy Montero and Will Bruin combined to score about .30 goals per 90. That’s actually decent production out of players you expect to be second or third choice. Upgrading the depth isn’t a bad idea, obviously, but they still need more production out of more positions.

The bigger problem is that Montero and Bruin had a better scoring rate than any starter other than Ruidíaz. If the Sounders are going to improve their offense, they need more scoring out of the guys who play starters’ minutes. Whether that’s Morris, Roldan, Albert Rusnák or some other player either currently on or off the roster, it’s gotta get better.

Problem 2: Raúl Ruidíaz was hurt too much

Related to Problem 1 was that Ruidíaz was only available to play about 1,300 MLS minutes this year. Even including the 478 minutes he played in CCL, that’s still less than he played in any other complete season with the Sounders. Simply put: That’s not enough.

There are surely other variables at play, but it’s hard to ignore how much better the Sounders were when Ruidíaz was healthy this year. In games he started across all competitions, the Sounders scored 2.00 goals on 1.73 expected goals per game (those would have been the second- and third-best averages, respectively, during the MLS season). They also averaged 1.56 points per game (the same as third-place FC Dallas) in Ruidíaz’s starts across all competitions.

In games Ruidíaz didn’t start, the Sounders averaged 1.17 goals on 1.40 xG (closer to mid-table). More painfully, they also averaged 1.13 PPG (only four teams in MLS averaged less all year).

In other words, the Sounders were A LOT better when Ruidíaz played.

What to do about it: The numbers state it pretty clearly: When Ruidíaz is healthy enough to start, the Sounders are one of the league’s elite teams; when he doesn’t, they are merely OK. Given that, the single biggest improvement the Sounders can probably make next year is figuring out how to keep Ruidíaz on the field more often. That might mean managing his minutes more carefully and showing more of a willingness to bring him off the bench, but he needs to at least be available.

One possible word of caution: Striker in MLS has become a younger man’s position. The only over-30 players to rank in the top 25 of scoring this year were Chicharito Hernandez (34 years old, 18 goals), Gonzalo Higuain (34, 16), Romell Quioto (31, 15), Carlos Vela (33, 12) and Dairon Asprilla (30, 12). That doesn’t exactly fill me with optimism that the now 32-year-old Ruidíaz can rejoin the ranks of the league’s top scorers, but there’s nothing about his skillset that shouldn’t age reasonably well ... as long as he can stay healthy.

Since his injuries have been exclusively muscle-related, my hope is that this is fixable with a better training plan.

Problem 3: Defensive decline

In 5 of Schmetzer’s first 6 seasons, the Sounders ranked in the top 4 of the league in terms of fewest goals allowed. Last year, they were tied for the fewest goals allowed. In 2019 — the one year they ranked outside the top 5 defenses — they still posted 10 shutouts, fifth most in the league. In all those seasons, I’d argue they epitomized Schmetzer’s ethos of being “hard to beat.”

That was not really the case in 2022. Despite boasting a top-10 defense by goals allowed, only three teams had fewer than the Sounders’ six shutouts. It wasn’t as though the Sounders suddenly forgot how to defend, but it did seem like they were regularly giving up soft goals on avoidable mistakes. Sometimes it was a sloppy giveaway leading to a counter-attack, or an unnecessary penalty, or a lack of concentration after scoring a goal of their own.

Far too often, those mistakes came close to a whistle. The Sounders conceded 13 goals in the final five minutes of either half, costing them 12 points on the season.

What to do about it: The defensive struggles are doubly frustrating because their back five was pretty stable. Stefan Frei, Nouhou, Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Xavier Arreaga and Alex Roldan were all starters on last year’s league-leading defense and played at least 2,100 minutes this year. Aside from maybe Frei — who had his best shot-stopping season since 2018 — I don’t think any of them played up to their previous standards.

I don’t think an overhaul is needed — and since all of them are on guaranteed contracts for 2023, that’s unlikely anyway — but this is one area of the team where some new blood would be useful. It’s also an area where I think some sense of internal competition would have been useful.

Jackson Ragen emerged early in the season as a viable option at centerback, but then made just two league starts over the second half of the season after being ejected from the Timbers game. Jimmy Medranda, too, never seemed to get much of a chance after struggling in an early start against Inter Miami. But to really upgrade the competition, the Sounders might need to bring in some outside help. Among MLS free agents, Aaron Long and Ryan Hollingshead are definitely enticing, but the Sounders would probably need to move someone in order to make room.

Problem 4: Unsettled midfield

I think you can probably make a case that the loss of João Paulo affected every one of the previously listed problems. There’s a scenario where he comes back fully fit and many of those problems simply go away without any other changes. But that’s a bit too hopeful, even for me.

The problem, I’d argue, wasn’t just that the Sounders lost their MVP from a year ago, it’s that the whole midfield was thrown into chaos. The Sounders ended up using 12 different defensive midfield combinations, probably too many of which included Rusnák.

During the handful of games we saw João Paulo and Rusnák together, they looked like an elite pairing as the Sounders went 3-1-2 during a stretch that included four road games and the final two rounds of CCL. Given that, I understand why Schmetzer was inclined to keep Rusnák there.

Rusnák continued to pair reasonably well with Obed Vargas, but once the teenager went out the Sounders really struggled for consistency and effectiveness.

What to do about it: Assuming João Paulo comes back reasonably close to his pre-injury self, the top priority needs to be finding him the right partner. It’s possible that’s Rusnák. But this is actually a position where the Sounders might be spoiled for choice.

There’s a compelling argument to be made that Lodeiro is better off dropping back a line. He has better defensive metrics than Rusnák, after all, and still covers a ton of ground. That makes him useful even if he’s not as effective on the offensive end as he once was.

Beyond him, there’s the trio of youngsters: Vargas, Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva, all of whom showed some real promise this year. These three players may well represent the future of the Sounders and continuing to find them significant minutes will be of utmost importance next year.

Problem 5: Lodeiro’s lack of production

Scoring two absolute golazos in the season finale made Lodeiro’s overall numbers look better, but even with those, it’s hard to ignore that he was not up to his usual standard despite a mostly healthy 2022. More than his scoring — which has always been pretty skewed by penalties — Lodeiro had his lowest assist total (11) of any full season in MLS. He also finished with his lowest key passes per 90 (2.18) and lowest expected assists per 90 (.28) of any season other than 2021, in which he battled injury throughout.

Lodeiro’s struggles were particularly apparent on set pieces, where the Sounders went from one of the league’s best in 2021 (tied for a league-leading 14) to one of the worst (8, two more than the worst in the league). Again, that six-goal difference in set-piece goals basically accounts for the Sounders’ goal-scoring drop-off from a year ago.

What to do about it: The good news is that Lodeiro’s famous engine is very much intact. According to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, he covered more ground per 90 minutes than anyone else in MLS by a pretty healthy margin. That suggests that Lodeiro is nowhere near washed.

But it’s fair to ask what all that movement is actually getting him. If Lodeiro has really lost some of that dynamic ability, it may be time to change formations or move him deeper in the field.

One interesting option could be inverting the triangle midfield and deploying both Lodeiro and Rusnák as dual-8s in more of a 4-3-3. This has become the formation of choice among many managers and it could fit the Sounders personnel reasonably well.

Less creatively, the Sounders could simply swap Lodeiro with either Cristian Roldan or Rusnák and put him alongside João Paulo. There’s plenty of reason to wonder aloud if that midfield duo has the defensive steel to stand up to a full MLS campaign — to speak nothing of both players being in their 30s — but it would certainly lend itself to a team intent on holding possession and sort of defending with the ball.

Either solution will require Schmetzer to have some hard conversations with his best player, something he has experience with but doesn’t seem to relish. But if the “championship window” is to remain open for another year, simply hoping it gets better won’t do the trick.

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