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How Sounders roster looks heading into offseason

There is a solid foundation here, but some additions can be made to take it to championship-quality.

Last Updated
10 min read
Mike Fiechtner / Sounders FC Communications

In some important ways, this proved to be a season with some positive forward momentum. It began in preseason when the Seattle Sounders completely remade their tactical approach.

Following what is essentially a worldwide trend, the Sounders began to employ a system that more-or-less morphed from a 4-4-2 in defense with two players leading the press to something more like a 3-2-2-3 in attack with one of the fullbacks dropping and the other effectively becoming a winger.

The approach itself was hit and miss. There was obvious improvement in terms of defensive solidity – the Sounders led the league in shutouts and were tied for the fewest goals allowed – but the offense struggled, averaging fewer goals per game than in any previous season. But that may have been as much due to inconsistent availability of several top players than the tactics, per se. As Matt Doyle recently pointed out, simply the idea that the Sounders could be competitive without Nicolás Lodeiro running the show was itself a pretty significant step forward. Either way it showed a level of adaptability and willingness to modernize in ways that many of us doubted a Brian Schmetzer-led team could.

There were also some positive developments in terms of personnel. Jackson Ragen, Josh Atencio and Reed Baker-Whiting all took significant steps forward in terms of being, at the very least, viable MLS starters. Although Léo Chú faded badly down the stretch, I think he at least showed a good deal of promise. Who knows how long any of them will actually stay in MLS, but I have no doubt that all of them can be heavy-use players on a championship-caliber team.

This also was a bit of a bounce-back year for several veterans. João Paulo came back from his ACL injury to once again be a Best XI-quality midfielder, while Yeimar Gomez Andrade recovered from a lackluster 2022 to establish himself as a Top 5 centerback. Jordan Morris, too, showed that he can still be a top-level MLS goal-scorer; Stefan Frei put most concerns about his age aside; Albert Rusnák proved he can be productive when deployed higher up the field; and Nouhou is still an elite defender. Of the regular starters, Cristian Roldan was probably the player around whom there were fewest questions heading into the season, and as long as he has put his concussions behind him, there’s no new reason to doubt that.

As I said previously, I still think there’s room to add a real difference-maker or two to this squad, but there’s clearly a foundation here that sets up the Sounders for longer-term success. For all the frustrations and flaws of this team, they still largely outplayed arguably the league’s most talented team and would have been favorites to advance to MLS Cup if they had beaten LAFC.

Upcoming offseason will be most significant in Sounders history
Almost regardless of how this season ends, there is likely to be a lot of change at the top of the roster.

But now it’s time to look ahead to 2024. Back in August, I predicted this would be “the most significant” offseason in Sounders history. Despite the improved form in the roughly four months since I wrote that, my thinking remains pretty much the same. The Sounders should have the flexibility to sign at least one new Designated Player, as well as several other higher-cost acquisition players. This offseason will likely set up the roster framework for the next 3-5 years.

Here’s how I see the current roster shaking out:

Players I’m confident will be back

Goalkeepers (3): Stefan Frei (new contract), Andrew Thomas (exercise option), Jacob Castro (exercise option)

Defenders (7): Yeimar Gomez Andrade (under contract), Jackson Ragen (exercise option, extend), Nouhou (under contract), Stuart Hawkins (under contract), Reed Baker-Whiting (under contract), Cody Baker (under contract), Alex Roldan (under contract)

Midfielder (7): João Paulo (exercise option, extend), Josh Atencio (exercise option, extend), Obed Vargas (under contract), Cristian Roldan (under contract), Léo Chú (under contract), Sota Kitahara (under contract), Paul Rothrock (exercise option)

Forwards (1): Jordan Morris (under contract)

This core group of 18 players is almost all certainly going to be back and I’d say you can cobble together a very competitive starting XI. Most of these players are already under contract or have team options. The one exception is Frei, who was due to be out of contract, but has already signed a new two-year deal.

There are at least two significant holes, though – a real playmaker and another scoring threat. These are the positions I would expect to get the most attention this offseason, but I’m at least a little intrigued by the possibility of opening the season with Morris as the starting No. 9.

Morris made 13 starts at the No. 9 this year, in which he scored nine goals and led the Sounders to a 9-3-1 record (2.0 PPG). That doesn’t mean he should be the unquestioned starter in that spot, but I think it makes it easier to take a big swing on a younger player.

Players I'm less sure about

Albert Rusnák (contract option for 2024): My understanding is that Rusnák’s option will keep him as a Designated Player, which is the only reason I think his return is at all questionable. If the Sounders are confident there will be new DP spots in 2024, exercising his option becomes a lot easier. Still, it might be worth seeing if they can get the 29-year-old to agree to a multi-year extension that allows them to make him a TAM player. I will note that Rusnák scored five goals in 15 starts as a No. 10, which suggests he can be reasonably productive when given extended run there.

Raúl Ruidíaz (under contract for 2024): When healthy, Ruidíaz was still reasonably productive (.43 goals and .49 xG per 90). The problem is he couldn’t stay healthy (just 1,053 regular-season minutes). As disappointing as he was, I have to think someone would be willing to take a gamble on him. Even if the Sounders have to eat part of his salary (about $3.5M), opening up his DP spot is probably worthwhile. I’m not quite convinced the Sounders should buy him out before the season, even as a last resort, but they’d probably have to consider it in the summer.

Xavier Arreaga (contract option for 2024): Niko Moreno has already reported that his option was picked up which makes it at least possible that he’ll be back in 2024. I think that only happens, though, if the Sounders can’t find a trade partner. He may have lost his starting spot to Jackson Ragen, but having a very reliable third centerback is obviously an asset, even if you’d rather not be spending $750,000 a year on them.

Danny Leyva (under contract for 2024): Easy to forget about Leyva (note: this was added after I published), but he was on loan for most of 2023 and is back under club control next year. He got a lot more playing time than he was on pace for with the Sounders, but hard to say if he actually progressed. My suspicion is that the Sounders will seek out another loan, maybe abroad, but should be totally open to bringing him back.

Ethan Dobbelaere (contract option for 2024): Just 21, there’s still time for Dobbelaere to develop, which I think makes it more than likely that he’s back. The problem is that after five professional seasons, it’s still pretty unclear what position he’d play. It seems like the Sounders have started to transition him to a fullback role, which might suit him, but he’s not yet shown a ton of defensive chops.

Dylan Teves (contract option for 2024): Like Dobbelaere, it’s not exactly clear what position Teves is best suited for. He did get three MLS starts as a right midfielder, but he also got two starts for Defiance at center forward and two more at the No. 10. He averaged a combined .31 goals per 90 for Sounders and Defiance, which shows some offensive potential, but he is 23. I hope he’s back because I think he’s a potentially useful depth piece, but wouldn’t be surprised if he’d rather go somewhere he’ll get more opportunity for first-team minutes than he seems destined for here.

Fredy Montero (out of contract): Although he only logged 435 minutes during the regular season, Montero was at least a regular on the bench. I think that’s likely a reward for his continued ability to be a positive influence in training, which is why I’d say there’s at least a chance he’s allowed to decide if he wants to play another season or not.

Players I think are almost certainly gone

Nicolas Lodeiro (out of contract): It was an amazing eight-year run that featured two MLS Cups, four Western Conference trophies and a CCL title, but all good things must come to an end. Lodeiro has stated, repeatedly, that he intends to keep playing, but not in Seattle. There’s no reason to doubt that.

AB Cissoko (out of contract): The centerback only made two MLS appearances and rarely even made the bench. I think he’s probably an MLS-quality backup, but at 23 he needs to be somewhere he can get minutes and that does not appear to be here. He’s also effectively already made his farewells on Instagram.

Stefan Cleveland (contract option for 2024): I’ve long believed that it didn’t make any sense to bring back Cleveland if Frei was back in 2024. With Frei back, I think the Sounders need to trust the backup job to one of their promising youngsters. Cleveland might have some trade value, but I think the Sounders will probably let him walk rather than complicate his chances.

Héber (contract option for 2024): I’ll maintain that I think acquiring Héber in the offseason was a smart move, but it did not pan out anywhere close to what I expected. Héber did a great job of getting into dangerous spots, but he did not score a single goal in any of his last 22 appearances across all competitions. For a striker making more than $1M, that’s just not anywhere close to good enough.

Kelyn Rowe (out of contract): After playing about 1,300 minutes in 2022, Rowe dropped to just 341 this year. That’s mostly due to a couple different injuries he picked up, during which he was effectively passed on the depth chart by younger players. I hesitate to say that there’s no chance he returns in 2024, and I suppose I could see how the Sounders could be talked into believing he’d be a useful depth piece, but I’d be at least a little surprised.

Players who could be promoted

Braudilio Rodrigues: The Defiance have already exercised his option for 2024 after he posted 17 goals and five assists, so he’ll be under club control. I am very confident the Sounders will at least give him a look in preseason. He’s a little older (24) and is an international, but he has an intriguing skillset.

Hal Uderitz: With Cissoko’s departure and Arreaga’s uncertain standing, there’s at least some potential for an internal promotion at centerback. Uderitz doesn’t have huge upside, but he seems like the type of player Schmetzer would trust in a pinch. He's currently out of contract, but the club is negotiating his return.

Georgi Minoungou: It’s a shame that an eye injury set him back, but the physical attributes that made him worthy of a $500,000 transfer fee are still there. I think he’ll at least be in preseason training while the Sounders keep a close eye on him with Defiance.

Important offseason dates:
- Dec. 1: Teams must submit contract updates
- Dec. 11: Trade window opens
- Dec. 12: Waiver process begins
- Dec. 13: Free agency opens

Offseason wishlist

Playmaker: With Lodeiro leaving, this is probably the top need. This player doesn’t necessarily need to be a classic 10 – in fact someone more comfortable in those half-spaces might be more ideal – but they need to be a player who’s more interested in setting up others than scoring themselves. The good news is that the Sounders can probably gamble on a younger player.

Center forward/winger: Even if the Sounders want to give Morris another extended look at the No. 9, I think it still makes sense to bring in someone who can push for minutes and provide some depth. Again, I think it’s fine to look for a younger player you don’t need to start right away, but I wouldn’t complain about a veteran at this spot either. Ideally that player can also — maybe even primarily — play out wide.

Depth at centerback: The starting spots are pretty much locked down with Yeimar and Ragen (who they probably need to extend, too), but there are plenty of questions beyond them if the Sounders are able to trade Arreaga. Hawkins is a promising talent but is probably at least a year away, so a more veteran presence would be great. I think even someone like Tony Alfaro would be fine.

A loan/transfer out for a youngster: Danny Leyva is due to return from his loan to the Rapids, which leaves the Sounders with the same problem they had last year. Between him, Vargas, Atencio and Kitahara that’s four players for at most two spots, which isn’t even considering Rusnák and João Paulo. At least three of those players have clearly graduated from Defiance and need first-team minutes somewhere to continue their development. Ideally, the Sounders are able to transfer one of them, but a loan out with an option to buy would also work.

General outlook

In addition to the 18 players I think are almost certainly back, there are probably at least four more from the current roster who will ultimately join them next season. That gives the Sounders about eight roster spots to play with, while also freeing up somewhere between $2.3-$3.7 million in actual cap space. The Sounders also appear to be somewhere between $50,000-$200,000 in the black for 2024 GAM, depending on whether or not Héber hit his performance escalators.

All of that is before we know what kind of new roster-rules will be unveiled ahead of the 2024 season. There have been rumors about adding a fourth DP, adding new money to the salary cap, allowing every team to use three U22 spots or even converting those spots to Young DPs.

My expectation is that the Sounders will make at least one new DP signing announcement before the end of the year, setting the stage for what should be a very interesting offseason.