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Craig Waibel era promises to be newsy

I appreciate that he seems a bit more willing to give us hints about future signings.

Last Updated
5 min read

The winter transfer window tends to be pretty quiet for the Seattle Sounders. At least when it comes to rumors, this winter has bucked that trend.

I’m not entirely sure how much of that we should directly attribute to Craig Waibel just running his ship a little differently, but he deserves some credit for giving us something to write about from jump.

At his introductory press conference, a reporter straight up asked him if there were any players at the World Cup they were scouting. Honestly, I rolled my eyes a little bit. Garth Lagerwey would almost never answer such a direct question with anything approaching an interesting answer. Instead, Waibel basically admitted that yes, they were and then went on to imply it was from a country the Sounders hadn’t previously signed anyone.

As hints go, that’s pretty broad. But this time of year it’s pretty hard to find anything to write about and I definitely appreciate that Waibel gave us some clues to follow. My Sounder at Heart colleague Tim Foss then took that and ran, putting together a story that highlights some potential targets.

For my money, the two players who I think seem to be the most likely targets are Ayase Ueda and Shuto Machino of Japan. Here’s what I think make them good fits:

  • All the indications I’ve seen are that the Sounders are mostly focused on bringing in a forward to help spell Raúl Ruidíaz and maybe provide a longterm replacement for him.
  • Both players seem to be relatively affordable. According to Transfermarkt, Ueda is worth about $2M and Machino is worth about $1.2M.

Of the two, I think Ueda is a slightly more intriguing prospect but might also be a bit harder to sign. Ueda just joined Belgium’s Cercle Brugge on a roughly $1.3M transfer fee and is signed through 2026. He had seven goals in less than 1,300 Jupiler Super League which came on the heels of 10 goals in about 1,500 JLeague minutes. Interestingly, Ueda was playing for Kashima Antlers in 2019, one of the teams Henderson watched in that video.

Machino doesn’t look too bad either, and as a bonus appears to be out of contract at the end of January. He also has a name that could make him an instant star. On the field, he just enjoyed a real breakout season with Shonan Bellmare where he scored 13 goals in about 1,800 minutes. His connection to the Sounders’ broader scouting network is a bit more tenuous, but he did spend some time at Yokohama Mariners, where former Defiance head coach John Hutchinson has significant ties.

On the other end of the roster-building spectrum, the Sounders are also looking pretty active in terms of finding opportunities for younger players. This week, I got word that Reed Baker-Whiting is training with SC Freiburg of the Bundesliga and that Chris Aquino had signed with the Defiance.

Both of these moves are indicative of what I think we’re going to see a lot of during the Waibel era.

Waibel has always been pretty aggressive about finding places for young players to challenge themselves and while I’m more than a little skeptical that Baker-Whiting is going to get time on the team currently sitting second in the Bundesliga, it would not be at all surprising to see him get minutes on their reserve team. On the face, that seems not great for the Sounders, but I’ve seen little reason to believe he’s going to be playing a ton here in 2023 anyway. If Freiburg want to get an extended look at him with the possibility of pulling the trigger on a seven-figure transfer, this seems like a good way of getting that done.

Aquino is only about a year younger, but might have a clearer path toward playing time than Baker-Whiting. While Baker-Whiting’s position is still something the Sounders are trying to figure out, everyone seems very high on Aquino’s potential to be a sort of  goal-scoring No. 10. One talent evaluator told me he’s the best goal-scoring product the Sounders have had in a long time, which should get him on the field with some frequency.

Some words on the USMNT

I am definitely a fan of the USMNT, albeit one who sees them as very secondary to my interest in the Sounders. From that vantage point, I was very happy with the World Cup performance. Definitely room for criticism, but definitely better than a lot of people seemed to think they’d do.

I kinda feel the same way about Gregg Berhalter. I think he probably made some goofs with his roster — leaving off Ricardo Pepi seems to be the easiest one to Monday Morning Quarterback — but he set up the USA well enough that they were arguably the better team in all three group stage matches and at least in the Netherlands loss.

Still, I’m a little ambivalent about bringing Berhalter back for a full second cycle. The chatter seems to imply that Berhalter might be ready to move back to the club game and I certainly wouldn’t blame him. I suspect US Soccer at least wants to see what other options are out there, too.

Given the core of this roster’s age and the fact that most of the tournament will be played in the United States, an improvement in performance is to be expected but I’m not at all convinced that Berhalter’s replacement will be objectively better. The reality is that most top coaches would prefer to run club teams, not only because they’re more lucrative because they allow for far more actual coaching.

The national team job is almost like a general manager, doing stuff like recruiting and direction setting. That definitely puts foreign coaches at a disadvantage, even if they might be better on the technical side.

If I had to pick someone to replace Berhalter right now? I’d be inclined to pick someone like Jim Curtin.

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