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How do you solve a problem that’s not a problem?

Kelyn Rowe gets a lot of flack, but that is likely due to a misunderstanding of his role.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

There have been Sounders flame wars before. I’m a veteran of many, and took a hill or two myself in the Brad Evans skirmishes of ‘09-‘10, when “he makes good runs” became a meme. But despite the precedents, the state of discourse around Kelyn Rowe seems to have reached a nadir.

It annoyed me enough to write something. You’re obviously welcome to disagree, but it is my strong opinion that Kelyn Rowe represents great value for money and renewing his contract was a smart move, and I think any dissatisfaction with him overall has more to do with unrealistic expectations than with his playing ability. I hope the discussion below makes a decent case.

Versatility

Everyone knows this already, but it’s worth stating again because it’s remarkable: Kelyn Rowe has lined up at the 6, the 8, the 10, left back, left wing-back, right back and right wing-back, and has most of his MLS minutes further up the pitch in attacking wide areas. He’s a proper formidfender in the mold of Roger Levesque, Lamar Neagle, and Brad Evans before him, and plays all of these positions at above replacement- to MLS starter-level.

This versatility has a double benefit. First, it’s handy for Brian Schmetzer and his staff to have someone who can cover leaks as they spring. Fielding 11 competitive players throughout an MLS season is a continual game of whack-a-mole, and a many-headed hammer is a handy tool to have in the box.

But as important as the direct on-field benefit of Rowe’s versatility is, the roster-building cheat code that he represents might be even more important. Rowe saves us from carrying three or four Rowe-level position specialists, and he does it without taking up an international spot. He’s why we don’t have a dedicated back-up right back. He’s why we were comfortable shipping Brad Smith off for wads of GAM three weeks before our first game, while Nouhou was 6,000 miles away and Jimmy Medranda wasn’t yet fit. He’s the reason we won’t rush Josh Atencio or Danny Leyva back from injury, and why Ethan Dobbelaere can take a year to work on his game with less pressure on him. And Rowe has done this all at a cap hit of somewhere around $180,000 (maybe less – his contract was renegotiated after his option was declined). For example, if instead of Rowe we had three or four minimum-salary position specialists (players who would likely not be at Rowe’s level or experience), we would be spending $100,000-$200,000 more (meaning Rowe almost pays for himself) and using several additional roster spots.

Playing style

One of the consistent complaints about Rowe is his wayward passing. FBref numbers show this is a valid criticism. Last year, his pass completion percentage was 72.9%, ranking in the 2nd percentile for midfielders and 11th percentile for fullbacks. That is clearly suboptimal, as 50th percentile would be league-average and 100th percentile would be best. I assume Schmetzer doesn’t love passes to the feet of opposition defenders. But the low percentage is mitigated somewhat, in my opinion, in that it seems to be at least partially by design.

Rowe’s passing vs. other midfielders
FBref.com

When on the ball, Rowe’s risk/reward meter is pushed all the way over to one side, and the numbers bear this out. His progressive passing and xA numbers are each in the mid-70th percentile, meaning he’s in the upper third of all midfielders in MLS in producing dangerous moves. For context, his numbers in these categories correlate well with more expensive MLS veterans like Joe Corona ($275,000), Kellyn Acosta ($1,000,000) and Roger Espinoza ($500,000). While Rowe completes passes at a lower rate than those players, I can only assume that Schmetzer has made the calculation that the aggressive passes Rowe chooses to attempt lead to opportunities at a rate that make the relatively low chance of completion worth it. As another point of comparison, MVP finalist and noted wizard João Paulo is passing at a completion rate in the bottom 15% of all midfielders, which further leads me to assume the risky pass selection is a choice made probabilistically.

Defensively, Rowe is all action, ranking in the 82nd percentile in tackles, 60th percentile in pressures, and 81st in aerials won per 90 minutes played. These are also comparable to the numbers put up by the more expensive players mentioned above. In general, he tracks across the board as an average-to-above-average MLS midfielder ... unless the only metric you look at is pass completion.

Managing expectations

Kelyn Rowe is not my favorite player, and it’s clear that we got less out of him than we would have gotten from a healthy Jordan Morris or Nicolás Lodeiro starting in his place. But last year wasn’t fair to Kelyn Rowe. The Sounders expect to have an MLS All-Star candidate at each position and to compete in every competition they enter. Rowe is a talented, but not exceptional, MLS journeyman. I would bet the farm that neither he nor the Sounders FO had him playing 35+ matches in their plans in 2021, but due to the high-profile injuries to key players, that was the position he was put into.

In general, I think he did a fine job. He brought energy and commitment. He had some very good games and he had a couple pretty bad ones, but generally his performances were right about what you’d expect from an MLS starter, 6-7 out of 10. While that’s not good enough for 35+ game starter for a team laser-focused on trophies, it is good enough for a backup player, which is what he is, and what he will be this year with Albert Rusnák, Lodeiro, Morris and potentially even Leo Chú all in contention for starting roles, and with an extra year under the belt for Atencio and Leyva. But smart MLS team building requires utilizing players like Rowe, and we’re getting him with a hometown discount when you compare him with similar players around the league.

Intangibles

This brings me to the last thing I like about Rowe: he’s local. That skyline tattoo on his left arm isn’t just some empty symbol. He wants to be here and he’s going to try to do what’s asked of him whether he can or not. I think last year we saw the upper limits of his capabilities as he ran himself into the ground in different roles week after week. Surely, that contributed to his fading down the stretch. This year, as the team should be fully stocked from the first whistle, I’m hoping we can spread his minutes out, allow him to focus on a shorter list of roles, and set him up for success in a way that wasn’t available to us last year. Hopefully, it will also reset our expectations for him and calm the discourse a bit, too.