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Kelyn Rowe proves you can always come home

Kelyn Rowe’s homecoming has proved to be more than just one last job.

Kelyn Rowe lifts the CCL trophy.
Kelyn Rowe lifts the CCL trophy.
Sounders FC Digital

Ahead of the 2021 season the Seattle Sounders signed Kelyn Rowe to a one-year contract on a deal worth about half of what he had made the previous season. At 29 years old, it seemed like the move was, at worst, one last go-round for Rowe with the chance to finally play in front of his family and friends. At best, well, Kelyn Rowe would have the opportunity to make himself indispensable for Brian Schmetzer on one of the best teams in the league and maybe lift a trophy or two. About 18 months later, and Rowe is playing some of the best football of his career, has played all but one possible game, and lifted his first professional trophy as the Sounders became the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League.

Rowe, who joined the New England Revolution as a hot prospect out of UCLA back in 2012, had become something of a journeyman after leaving his first pro club following the 2018 season. He spent time with Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, playing games with the first and second teams at both organizations, before eventually going back to New England for the 2020 season. Rowe had struggled at times over the last several seasons to find a consistent place on the field, having suffered a couple of injuries and dropping off a bit in terms of offensive production after initially entering the league as a creative, attacking midfielder. In Seattle, though, he put all of that behind him.

While Rowe is far from a perfect player, and some might argue that he’s not even in the Sounders’ ideal Starting XI, his place as the 12th man is indisputable. Since joining Seattle, Rowe’s greatest quality, maybe his super power, has been his availability. In 2021 he appeared in every game that the Sounders played in, and in 2022 the only game he’s not appeared in was the 2-0 loss only days after playing a key part in the home win over Pumas UNAM in the CCL Final when he replaced Nouhou due to injury only 11 minutes into the game. Rowe isn’t getting a write-up for simply participating, though. In his 59 appearances in all-competitions, he may not have necessarily pushed the team’s ceiling higher, but he’s absolutely lifted the floor.

In the three seasons prior to coming home, Rowe had Fotmob average ratings of 6.54 (2018), 6.24 (2019) and 6.43 (2020). Then in 2021 he jumped to an average of 6.92 in his MLS appearances while setting a career high for appearances, and has raised his performance to a 7.0 average rating in all competitions in 2022. He’s managed that while playing all over the field, with more than a third of his minutes coming as a leftback or left wingback. Considering the quality and importance of the fullbacks in the Sounders system, it’s impressive and significant that Rowe has made himself the primary backup to Alex Roldan at rightback, and put himself into contention for the first choice leftback spot while also reliably putting in shifts throughout the midfield.

It’s not just that he’s absorbed minutes or put in a good shift, though. In league play Rowe leads the team 1.8 successful dribbles per 90 minutes, is in a three-way tie for second with 1.2 successful tackles/90, and is among the top-6 in interceptions/90, clearances/90, overall Fotmob rating. He hasn’t found himself on the score sheet too much this season — his two secondary assists against Vancouver were his first goal involvements in league play to go along with an assist in the Open Cup and a goal against Motagua in CCL — but his passing has still consistently helped to create dangerous moments and attacking opportunities. According to FBRef, in MLS Rowe has the fifth most progressive passes/90 for the Sounders, seventh most completed crosses into the 18-yard box/90, and the eighth most completed passes into the final third/90. Those numbers are consistently at least double Nouhou’s numbers, providing a much more balanced and complimentary piece to Alex Roldan on the other side from the LB spot when the Sounders are in possession.

This is all to say that Rowe has been much more than a feel-good story in Seattle. He’s ours, and we are his, and coming home seems to have allowed him to unlock the best version of himself on the field. More than that, though, he just might be the player that unlocks the best of Seattle as well.