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Yeimar returns but Jackson Ragen isn’t quite ready to cede starting spot

The Seattle native has been a solid contributor during Yeimar’s injury.

MLS: Concacaf Champions League Semifinal-Seattle Sounders vs New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

TUKWILA, Wash. — Yeimar Goméz Andrade has been a full participant during training this week and will be available for selection on Saturday against the San Jose Earthquakes.

Whether he actually returns directly to the starting lineup, however, is not quite as clear. Despite being considered one of the top defenders in MLS last year, Yeimar will still need to win back his starting spot even once he’s returned to full fitness.

That’s due in no small part to the play of Jackson Ragen, who has started 5 of 6 games Yeimar has missed. The Sounders allowed one goal in each of Ragen’s starts and went 2-0-3 while qualifying for the Concacaf Champions League final.

“He’s been great,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said about Ragen. “He will be in the conversation for considerable minutes all year long. He’ll compete for starts.

“He’s a handy piece to have because he changes the dynamic a bit. His passing gives us a little more possession.”

Ragen, who was without a professional team as recently as last summer and had to fight for a first-team roster spot this offseason, is deferential to the point that he openly says “Yeimar is a great player, it’s his job to lose definitely.” Ragen is also competing with Ecuador international Xavier Arreaga, who has started every game for which he’s been available. But the Seattle native seems to relish the opportunity to even be allowed to compete for the spot.

“That’s a big part of what makes this team so good is the competition,” he said. “Xavi and I, now that Yeimar is coming back, have to be competing with each other along with AB [Cissoko] to see who’s going to be the two starters. That’s only going to make us all better.”

Even if Ragen doesn’t ultimately retain his first-choice spot, there promises to be plenty of opportunities in the coming weeks and months. Depending on how Open Cup play goes, the Sounders could play as many as eight matches in May.

“We’re going to need everybody,” Schmetzer said. “If you look at our schedule from now until early June, we’re slammed.”

Plans for San Jose

While obviously not revealing his exact starting lineup for the Earthquakes match, Schmetzer did suggest that it would be much closer to first choice than the Inter Miami match in which 10 players were rotated out from the midweek CCL match. Schmetzer likened it to the situation at the start of the CCL semis when the Sounders had a road game against Minnesota United on the weekend and a home game against New York City FC at midweek. The Sounders made just one change between those matches and that was to insert Raúl Ruidíaz, which was entirely due to fitness.

“It’s the same as against Minnesota, we started a strong team and we’ll make changes as the game progresses,” Schmetzer said. “San Jose is an important game for us.”

Schmetzer has said all along that he does not intend to willingly sacrifice results in one competition for the sake of the other. He is keenly aware that the Sounders are currently on just seven points in six league games. Schmetzer is also wary of an Earthquakes team that just fired head coach Matias Almeyda after limping to the worst start in the league.

“It’s hard because you can’t watch film of their previous style of play,” Schmetzer said. “Matias played a very distinct style. We don’t know how they’re going to come out. We watched some of their Open Cup game [a 5-0 win over NISA side Bay Cities FC] but that wasn’t much. We’re going to focus on our team, make sure we’re right and we’ll go from there.”