#9 Josh Atencio – 6.04 in 12 appearances
Community rating – 6.17
MOTM = 1 High = 8 Low = 5
Perhaps forgotten at the start of the year behind other young midfielders, Atencio had a two-part breakout season in 2023. The first came as Josh earned MOTM against St. Louis in game seven where he scored a banger in a complete performance. Literally days later, he was injured in practice and had to bide his time, getting only short minutes and bench appearances, until eventually given another chance to show what he could do. This finally came at the end of August, and he excelled, not just earning time but becoming the de facto starter in defensive midfield. One of the mysteries of 2023 is why Josh wasn’t utilized with any consistency (or at all) for the four and a half months in between. A consensus starter in must-win playoff games, Atencio finished the year with a single goal and assist, but his combination of stellar defensive numbers (4 tackles, 1.5 interceptions, 2.5 aerials won per match) and driving offensive push (two touches per match inside the penalty area, 85th percentile in progressive carries, and over three progressive receptions a match) showed the full package. Never rating below a 5 all year, Atencio averaged 7.2 in the last five matches of the year and was a standout playoff performer.
What I liked: Atencio’s biggest talent wasn’t what he did himself, but how he facilitated the success of those around him, and specifically João Paulo. A big, physical aerial presence belied his silky soft touch, and Josh was tremendous combining centrally. His ability to defend across the midfield released the wingers high and wide, and he complemented this with smart, incisive runs forward and to the corners. With Seattle’s bigger name players garnering attention, it was Atencio who blew into the attack and stretched the defense, creating gaps for teammates to attack. His ability to defend behind and release Léo Chú on one side was paired with the soft feet and vision to combine in intricate triangles of touch-and-move soccer control on the opposite side, working with the Roldans and Jordan Morris to release runs up the right. He was especially effective at moving the ball forward, whether via pass or dribble, with his head up and looking to attack vertically more than other defensive mids. This was a deadly combination with his fitness level, allowing him to consistently recover after making forward runs. A game against Dallas led to this comment:
“Atencio had another fantastic match, facilitating both the defense that roved in packs to earn near-constant possession, and the offense by making direct, attacking runs that Dallas was unable to defend. Josh had two tackles and two interceptions on defense and led the team with 12 duels as well. While doing all that, he also led the team in shots with five! He was everywhere on the field, popping up to add support as Seattle stretched Dallas and attacked through the gaps, or combined in tight areas to overload and create chances.”
What I didn’t like: Losing momentum directly after that early MOTM outing was crushing, and it seemed like the coaching staff took forever to heed my (and others’) advice: MOAR ATENCIO. Obed Vargas and others were given opportunities, which is important and shouldn’t be too second-guessed, but the team might have missed a chance to right the ship earlier had Atencio been let out of purgatory sooner. Josh does need to work on a few things, like gaining more precision on both ends of the field, as he’s sometimes late to react to defensive lapses or offensive openings. These moments prevented his numbers from being even higher, and if he wants to be an elite midfielder, he has to be more than simply better than the other options.
Moving forward: Especially with Nico leaving, JP and Albert Rusnák will be fixtures centrally, and the player that can best mesh with them will get the time. Right now that’s clearly Josh Atencio. He has to build off a tremendous end to the 2023 season, grasp that starting spot in the defensive midfield, and let there be zero debate about that decision. This means continuing to release those around him into fortuitous areas, building off his forward runs, strengthening his defensive positioning, and adding the all-around polish to show he's here for good. In addition to facilitating JP, creating for himself to turn his half-chances in 2023 into tangible, goal-dangerous moments in 2024 will be important.
#8 Nouhou – 6.06 in 32 appearances
Community rating – 6.19
MOTM = 1 High = 9 Low = 4
Always a lightning rod for debate, Nouhou clocks in at #8 on the team, with a perhaps surprisingly consistent year at left back. Rarely beaten, Nouhou had a different role on the left as much of the Sounders success depended on Léo Chú creating in front of him. Due to this, Nouhou stayed home more and freed Chú up to be a forward force, and the Cameroonian left back picked his spots smartly. Nouhou was fifth on the team in progressive passing, a marked improvement at pushing the attack forward from previous years, and his communication, especially with Chú, seemed better than the at-times confusing movement when paired with Morris on the wing.
What I liked: Many of the issues of yesteryear were cleaned up in 2023. The positioning complaints that had permeated his career were muted, as Nouhou prioritized defending his wing first, combining to release Chú second, and then finding opportunities for himself last. Even so, he was still third on the team in passes into the final third, finding vertical passes and combining well when in the attack, and, most importantly, making smart decisions. The long counterattacks that so befuddled Seattle defensively were largely removed. As Seattle started the playoffs, Nouhou put up his best performance of the year against Dallas, and this is from that match:
“The balance up the left was exquisite, as Nouhou drove into the attack when needed, made near-perfect choices on both ends of the field, controlled possession, and when given a slip pass in the 74th minute, dropped an absolute dime on the noggin of Jordan Morris to put the game away. This was a complete performance highlighted by Nouhou’s fantastic decisions on both ends of the field.”
This performance in a playoff game showed the high ceiling he has, capable of his expected lockdown 1-v-1 defending but also able to provide the final pass, with his service being much better this year.
What I didn’t like: There were a few lows. Because Nouhou’s rarely beaten, when he is, it’s apparent who’s fault it is. He followed that fantastic game referenced above with a terrible match in the second leg, being beaten and committing a penalty, nearly being carded off the field, and having an all-around terrible time. That was the exception rather than the rule, but boy was it rough. When Nouhou has an off game, he’s not a dependable distributor, he relies on physical play that is risky at best, and he lets his emotions override his decision making. While he makes a lot of passes into the attack, he is rarely on the other end, putting pressure on the attackers in front of him to be the sole offense. This may be by design (or can be game-planned around), but there are some fairly obvious opportunities missed because Nouhou isn’t attacking on the wing.
Moving Forward: The biggest complaint about Nouhou seems to be that he isn’t an offensive creator. However, he was excellent at dribbling into attacking areas, had a playoff assist, and was more effective in less aggressive tactics in 2023. He should try to learn from this year, understanding that his defense is excellent, and his offense can be a tool to support whoever plays the wing in front of him. Turning Nouhou into an offensive creator might be asking too much, but he has shown useful service from wide areas at times, and a better understanding of when to take those opportunities will define his success (and likely his image with fans) in 2024.
#7 Jackson Ragen – 6.25 in 36 appearances
Community rating – 6.45
MOTM = 1 High = 8 Low = 4
Jackson Ragen was good but wildly inconsistent in 2022, rating three-quarters of a point lower than Xavier Arreaga. In 2023, he was borderline best-eleven in the entire league, grabbing a starting spot in preseason and never letting it go, a year-long culmination of his visible talents displayed with amazing consistency. Jackson showed up this season, and to call what he did “blossoming” is an understatement. A towering force defensively, he anchored the best defense in the league, casually supporting a team-record clean sheet mark and consistently showcasing his brand of calm, brick wall defending. His pass completion percentage was a sparkling 90 percent, constantly making the safe, clean passes you need to be a dominant defense.
What I liked: Always big, he played strong and tough, physically matching every attacker in the league and dominating. Always smart, he channeled his best decision making nearly every match out, making intelligent safe passes when necessary, dialing in big aggressive looks when open, and positioning himself with a tactical understanding of shape and defensive needs almost flawlessly. Always opportunistic, he picked his spots well, using big tackles and long balls to switch the point of attack as tools that complemented his short passing and possession style. Ragen grew up in 2023; gone were the yips that got him red carded out of a rivalry game last year, or the whiff that saw a counter attack run by him to score. Jackson saw the whole field and reacted with complete knowledge of the danger areas he was facing, distributing cleanly and calmly for the entire season with remarkable consistency.
What I didn’t like: There is still plenty to work on for Jackson, as his penchant for being a little out of shape tactically still popped up on occasion as he overestimated his speed on some nervy moments. While the big tackles are fun to watch, they often aren't necessary and can be risky: more refined positioning will remove the need for them. His defensive skills are strong and positioning is good, but to be a complete player he must improve his defensive headers. Although it's unfair to compare anyone to Chad Marshall, that should be the bar to reach for as Ragen has the frame and talent to get there. What he doesn't have is header control. Heading to a teammate and keeping possession instead of just up and out must be improved upon. Secondly, and perhaps most impactful to the team, Ragen's lack of impact on offensive headers has to be improved. Seattle was dreadful on set pieces, often because Jackson wasn’t remotely goal dangerous. They tried repeatedly to find him and, while tall, he was ineffective at finding the ball in dead ball situations, adding to an impotent set piece attack.
Moving forward: Ragen looks to be locked in for the foreseeable future next to Yeimar. This gives Seattle defensive flexibility to change the roster, and the most exciting part may be that Jackson hasn’t hit his ceiling yet. While he is a great possession player, there is room for improvement on progressive passing, and for someone with his vision, finding those more vertical passes should be learnable. Same with attacking headers; if Seattle can find more consistent service, there is no reason that his defensive aerial presence can’t be channeled into similar success when attacking the ball offensively. The footwork and decision making are already there, so if Ragen can put all the pieces together, he has the opportunity at a relatively young age to be one of the best center backs Seattle has ever had.