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Sounders behaving like a team that expects to contend now

Despite some calls to start rebuilding, the Sounders front office seems more interested in reloading.

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3 min read

What was a pretty boring offseason has kicked into gear over the last week or so. First came news that the Sounders had completed a trade with NYCFC for Héber. Then we learned that Cristian Roldan was close to finalizing a five-year contract extension. this found out that the Sounders were among the final offers being considered by free agent centerback Aaron Long.

Although it doesn’t look like they’ll push Long’s signing across the finish line — LAFC appear to have secured his committment — I think it shows a pretty clear pattern of the Sounders’ plans at least for the short term.

Even if Long had been signed — likely triggering the sale of Xavier Arreaga, who I understand still could be on the trading block — these are the moves of a front office that feels as though there’s no need to rush a rebuild. And frankly, I wouldn’t expect anything less.

The Sounders have contended for trophies every year of their MLS existence not by rebuilding but reloading. I know people are tired of hearing it, but they did win a pretty massive trophy last year and it took some serious injury issues to keep them out of the playoffs. The moves they’re making — or trying to make — suggest they believe the core of this roster can still contend.

Héber’s acquisition I think has gone underappreciated in this way.

No one seems to doubt that when healthy Raúl Ruidíaz remains an elite center forward. Across all competitions, the Sounders averaged 2.0 goals per game and 1.55 points when Ruidíaz started. Only one team averaged more goals than that last season and that PPG would have put the Sounders seventh in the Supporters’ Shield standings. Those numbers dropped to 1.17 goals and 1.08 PPG when Ruidíaz didn’t start. Simplistic as it may seem, that’s the difference between a team contending for MLS Cup and missing the playoffs.

On paper at least, Héber’s acquisition addresses that to be a pretty significant degree. Héber may be 31 and hasn’t returned to the elite form he flashed in 2019, but he was among the most efficient scorers in MLS last season while mostly coming off the bench. Among players with at least 1,000 minutes played, only nine had a better scoring rate than Héber (.66 per 96 minutes, according to American Soccer Analysis). That’s actually better than even Ruidíaz (.61). Héber’s .42 non-penalty xG per 96 minutes was also nearly identical to Ruidíaz’s (.41). I’m not saying Héber should be viewed as Ruidíaz’s equal, but I think we can at least expect the Sounders’ performance not to drop off quite so dramatically if the Peruvian misses a bunch of time again.

I tend to think the Sounders’ defensive struggles last year have been a bit overblown  — they were still solidly in the top third in terms of goals allowed — Long would have likely offered a slight upgrade over Arreaga. If anything, I think it spoke more to the Sounders’ stylistic preference — Long is bit more predictable — than some grand commentary on their defense.

Re-signing Roldan is just the final piece of evidence that the Sounders aren’t itching for a grand makeover. Roldan is not the flashiest players, but he’s proven himself to be one of the most reliable two-way players in the league and shows no real signs of falling off. It’s easy to forget after he struggled with fitness over the season’s last few months, but he had a career year with five goals and 11 assists across all-competitions.

Considering they’ll be coming directly out of preseason and flying across the world to likely play a team that will effectively have home-field advantage, expectations for the Club World Cup should probably be tempered but I think there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Sounders can again contend for trophies in 2023 even if this is the extent of their offseason moves.

What I’m hearing

By now it’s become pretty normal for Sounders Academy players to be called into various youth national teams. For the most part, those have been field players. The inclusion of goalkeeper Mohammed Shour (2007) in the U16 USYNT camp that runs Jan. 4-13 is notable in that sense, but also because he’s apparently a player the Sounders are very high on. In fact, one source told me that Shour is currently on track to become the first goalkeeper to sign a professional contract with the Sounders organization before he goes to college.

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