Perhaps the biggest decision facing Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer over the season’s final eight games is how to kickstart an offense that has struggled for consistency for the better part of five months.
Since their hot start – in which they scored 15 goals in their first seven games (2.14 per game) – the Sounders have only managed 15 goals in their last 19 (.79 per game). After scoring multiple goals in 5 of those first 7, they’ve only managed to do that in 2 of 19. After being shut out twice in their first seven, the Sounders have been held scoreless eight times in 19. Scoring isn’t just a problem, it is THE problem.
The most glaring part of that problem is the production from the forward group. The Sounders have gotten just two goals from their No. 9 spot over their last 18 MLS matches. Most of those starts have gone to Raúl Ruidíaz and Héber, but Fredy Montero and Jordan Morris have also gotten looks.
“You’re not going to win unless your forward starts scoring goals,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer told Sounder at Heart on Tuesday. “You’re paying Raúl a lot of money, Héber has been a nice guy and started the season well. Have I given him enough of a chance? Fredy can give us a few minutes. You’ll see Jordan up front in the very near future. We have to solve it.”
Ruidíaz is the player on whom there has been the most focus. After battling injuries for much of the first half of the season, he’s managed to stay healthy but now can’t find the back of the net. His personal goal-less drought is at nine games and 732 minutes, the worst slump of his Sounders career and probably ever. Héber was brought in during the offseason to help relieve some of the pressure on Ruidíaz but after a hot start has hit his own fallow stretch, last having scored in the season’s second game and now on a goal-less run of 819 minutes.
“I asked Raúl ‘How can I help?’” Schmetzer said. “He says he gets it, he understands. He’ll keep working, he wants the team to do well. I don’t know how much else we can do other than revamp a couple of spots and see if something sparks.”
While there was a stretch of time where it seemed like the Sounders’ main issue was simply bad luck, it’s harder to make that case now. Even after the actual goal-scoring dried up, they had been generating 1.73 expected goals per game through their first 16 games. Over their last 10 games, however, that figure has dropped to 1.08, which isn’t that meaningfully different than the .90 goals they’re actually scoring in those games.
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Interestingly, the dip in chance creation coincides almost exactly with Ruidíaz’s return to the lineup. Ruidíaz started seven of those 10 matches and played at least 25 minutes off the bench in two more. The Sounders’ xG in Ruidíaz’s starts is just 1.2, compared to 1.6 in games he doesn’t start.
That’s not to suggest that Ruidíaz is actively making the Sounders’ worse – the data suggests the Sounders’ xGD is actually slightly better with him on the field than off – but it’s hard to ignore that his performances are trending in the wrong direction. Ruidíaz has only put one shot on frame in his past six games and didn’t even manage a shot in 87 minutes against Minnesota United. For a player who came into this season as one of the most prolific scorers on a per-minute basis in MLS history, the drop off has been both impossible to ignore and hard to watch.
Schmetzer doesn’t seem quite ready to entirely give up on Ruidíaz but did strongly hint that a change was in the offing at least for Wednesday’s match against Austin FC, which will likely feature a host of changes throughout the lineup.
The obvious option to replace Ruidíaz, at least in this one, is Morris, who has scored 5 of his 10 goals while playing forward. Yes, that includes the four-goal game against Sporting KC earlier this year, but it was also one of just four starts he’s been given at the No. 9 spot. His last start as a No. 9 came on May 7 and the only time he’s even been moved to that spot later in a match was on Sunday against Minnesota, when he was there for about five minutes.
Schmetzer still believes Morris is most effective when paired with more of a pure No. 9 – noting that his natural instincts seem to match up a bit better out wide – but is at the point where he’s a bit more willing to question his assumptions.
“We have this road game,” Schmetzer said. “At some point I need to make a decision if he’s going to play as a No. 9 or if we’re going to continue with Raúl.”
Wednesday’s game against Austin FC would seemingly be a good opportunity to give Morris another look at forward. Austin is tied for the second-most goals allowed in MLS (39), have allowed the third most goals to opposing forwards (24) and their likely centerback pairing of Matt Hedges and Julio Cascante should be exploitable with runs in behind.
Putting Morris at forward would also be a chance to potentially rekindle the relationship he forged with Léo Chú, who is likely to start after coming off the bench against Minnesota. Chú has assisted on six of Morris’ goals, more than any other goal-scoring combination in MLS this year.
“Léo and I had a really good connection early on in the season,” Morris said during a recent interview on Nos Audietis. “His ability to get in behind teams ... a lot of the goals I scored were in his ability to get behind teams. We had a really, really good connection.”
Notably, that’s also where Morris said he’d prefer to play.
“I would want to play up front,” he said during the same interview. “When I was playing well and having a great start, that’s where I can be really dangerous. Léo’s been having a great season on the left.”
Whether it’s Ruidíaz regaining his historic form, Héber breaking out of his nearly season-long slump or Morris forcing coaches to give him an extended look, something is going to have to give at forward if the Sounders are to reverse their fortunes. Their season may rest on how this turns out.