As the Seattle Sounders prepare to open their 15th MLS preseason on Saturday, they find themselves in an unfamiliar position. The Sounders are coming off their first playoff-less MLS season and at the very least will need to deal with a new level of skepticism from a fanbase who has known almost nothing but winning.
At the same time, the Sounders are opening camp with a roster that looks very similar to the one that finished out last year, with changes mainly on the periphery. Here are some of the biggest questions they’ll need to answer this preseason:
What did they learn from last season’s roller-coaster?
When asked a similar question at the end of 2022, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer suggested that maybe he’d trusted his players a little too much and that some of them may have taken advantage of that. He didn’t really get into that in more specific terms, but one thing I’ve heard is that there was a general sense that there wasn’t enough internal competition for starting spots and a vague lack of urgency, especially after winning Concacaf Champions League. It will be interesting to see if any concrete changes are made as a result of that overall feeling.
One thing we know for certain is that the Sounders will have to navigate at least four different competitions this year — the Club World Cup, U.S. Open Cup and Leagues Cup in addition to the regular season — which suggests there should be plenty of rotation regardless. - Jeremiah
How healthy is João Paulo?
Perhaps the single biggest challenge the Sounders faced last season was trying to replace João Paulo after he was hurt in the CCL final and lost for the season. By all indications, he’s looking very close to making a full return. With João Paulo, the Sounders looked every bit like a team that could rightfully claim to be the best in the region. Without him, well the proof is on the field.
If João Paulo is anything close to 100% this year, there’s no reason to think they can’t contend in every competition they enter. But if he needs a full season to get back, there could be some significant challenges. - Jeremiah
Who plays alongside João Paulo?
A lot of other questions will probably be affected by how this one gets answered. Assuming João Paulo is fully fit, you have to assume he’s going to be a starter. His 2021 campaign was one of the best two-way performances in MLS history. Even if he drops off some, it will be almost impossible to see him not being a starter. But who complements him best is a very open question.
Last year, Albert Rusnak looked to be a very nice partner. But that was a pretty limited sample size and it’s entirely possible Rusnák is more useful in the attack. Cristian Roldan is another option and was João Paulo’s partner at the start of last season before he and Rusnák swapped. It’s also possible one of the young guys — Danny Leyva, Josh Atencio or Obed Vargas — show enough improvement to nose their way into the conversation. - Jeremiah
New year, new formation?
2022 included the club’s highest high, and also arguably their lowest low. In league play the team struggled to score goals; only five Western Conference teams scored fewer goals than Seattle’s 47, with only FC Dallas making the playoffs of those teams. Their defensive record was a bit better, relatively speaking, as only four Western teams allowed fewer than their 46 goals and all four made the playoffs. A major source of the team’s offensive struggles was the striker position, as Raúl Ruidíaz, Fredy Montero and Will Bruin contributed a combined 16 goals and 4 assists in MLS. In 2021 Ruidíaz alone had 17 goals and 1 assist.
They’ve made a change at the striker position, swapping Bruin for Héber from NYCFC. Héber could spell Ruidíaz and limit the drop-off when the star striker isn’t on the field, but Brian Schmetzer could also play them together in a two-striker formation, something the team only did to start a game a total of three times in 2022. With Nouhou likely sticking around and no clear backup or replacement at left back, it’s possible that the team utilizes a three-back formation to get the best out of Nouhou and also simplify the job for whoever steps in at left wingback. There’s no clear-cut best option, but this is definitely a question we’ll likely see answered in preseason as Schmetzer and his staff work to get the most out of the talent on the squad in short time. - Tim
One issue that the Sounders ran into last year was that, while there were clear-cut first choice players at fullback (and wingback), the options got muddy behind Nouhou and Alex Roldán. Those options were, almost exclusively, Kelyn Rowe. Jimmy Medranda pitched in at left wingback, Ethan Dobbelaere started against FC Cincinnati at right wingback, and Cristian Roldan dropped back to fill in for his brother a time or two. For 2023 Medranda’s moved on and Rowe can’t reasonably be expected to be the primary backup at both fullback/wingback spots and across the midfield without some consequences.
With 27 players currently signed, there’s not a ton of room to add more bodies without corresponding moves, so it makes the most sense to look for backups among the players that are already here. One interesting option is Reed Baker-Whiting. He’s primarily played throughout the midfield in the professional ranks within the Sounders organization, but with US Youth National Teams recently he’s been deployed as a right back. If he can adjust to the position at the pro level it would clarify his pathway to MLS minutes. Similarly, Sota Kitahara has joined a crowded midfield group, but in his earlier days with Tacoma Defiance and on his loan to FC Pinzgau Saalfelden in Austria he was frequently used as a RB. If either of them, or Dobbelaere, can become A. Roldán’s understudy it could go a long way in solidifying the roster. - Tim
Youth versus the New Guy(s)
In some cases the Youth are the New Guys. Signed as HGPs were Jacob Castro (San Diego St, University of Washington, Sounders Academy) and Kitahara (Tacoma Defiance, Sounders Academy). Currently the only acquisition from outside the organization is Héber.
In many ways the club is taking the attitude of running it back. This is frequently done after a championship, which the Sounders did win back in May, but they also failed to make the MLS Playoffs. Running it again may be unusual in these circumstances. We’ll find out in a few decades when more than one MLS team wins the Concacaf Champions League.
The club has also stated that they wanted to get younger. That can only be done by youth earning time. If one were to throw together a two-deep XI the only places where you could consider the Sounders young is Léo Chú and maybe, if you’re generous Jackson Ragen. They got a tiny bit younger trading for Héber and letting Will Bruin go.
To actually get younger on the field, in a year with a minimum acceptable number of matches of 42 (yes, that means advancing in Leagues Cup and winning a playoff game) is for young talents to earn time. Who is going to follow in the footsteps of Obed Vargas (‘22), Josh Atencio (‘21) and Danny Leyva (‘19)? It could be them. It might not. But it needs to be two or three someones for the average age of minutes played to drop. - Dave
Dead balls; live action
Remember those few seasons when the Sounders were strong during non-penalty stoppages? They were the opposite of 2022. Without João Paulo’s service free kicks and corners were stale.
Problems went beyond just the near-post targeting on corners. There just wasn’t an acceptable conversion rate. If Seattle hit the league average on set-piece success they probably make the playoffs, things were that close.
Things that should help;
- João Paulo’s service.
- Héber’s head.
- Atencio and/or Ragen.
- Maybe some new techniques that the coaches won’t specifically reveal, but that they could talk about implementing.
There are organizations now who have assistant coaches dedicated to stoppages. MLS probably isn’t big enough for that. But Seattle can dedicate just a bit more time to getting the type of service that their best talents can take advantage of. - Dave