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Everything a Sounders fan needs to know heading into 2023

Some fundamental things have changed — like the playoff format — while others have remained the same — like the roster.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The 15th MLS season in Seattle Sounders history kicks off on Sunday at home against the Colorado Rapids. While the roster has mostly stayed intact, there has been quite a lot of offseason change in the league’s structure. Here’s all the on-field information you need to get ready:

Change at the top

  • Although the coaching staff remains largely the same, a lot has changed behind the scenes. On the soccer side, former Sounders Sporting Director Craig Waibel has replaced Garth Lagerwey, who became Atlanta United’s president. This is Waibel’s second chance as a MLS GM, having previously served in that role with Real Salt Lake from 2015-2019 before joining the Sounders in 2021. Waibel is a Pacific Northwest native with an extensive MLS playing career and even played a couple seasons with the Sounders in the USL days.
  • On the business side, veteran NBA and NHL executive Hugh Weber has replaced Peter Tomozawa, who took a job heading the Seattle World Cup organizing committee.

Sounders make history in Club World Cup

  • Although they lost their one and only game, the Sounders still made history by becoming the first MLS team to ever compete in the FIFA Club World Cup. The Sounders actually looked pretty good in their 1-0 loss to Egypt’s Al Ahly on Feb. 4, outshooting their opponents 8-1 in the first half and only conceding off a deflected shot in the 87th minute. While the Sounders didn’t exactly look to be at their sharpest, the earliest ever competitive match in team history will hopefully serve to get them a bit closer to full fitness when the season officially starts.

New Leagues Cup format debuts

  • You may remember that the Sounders became the first MLS team to make a Leagues Cup final in 2021 when they lost to Liga MX side León. After taking a hiatus in 2022, the tournament is back in 2023 but with an all new format. Rather that being played concurrently with the season, both MLS and Liga MX will break from league play from July 21-Aug. 19 to compete in a 47-team tournament. All teams will play at least two games and some will play as many seven. The Sounders were drawn into a group with Real Salt Lake and Monterrey. Exact dates of the matches are still TBD, but the Sounders are expected to visit RSL and host Monterrey.

New playoff format, too

  • Just a few days before the start of the season, MLS finally announced its playoff format for 2023. In addition to bringing back the best-of-3 first round — a playoff format MLS used from 1996-2002 — they are also expanding the playoff field to 18 teams, meaning 62% of teams will now qualify. Even by MLS standards, that’s pretty forgiving and the last time such a high percentage of teams qualified for the playoffs in a non-Covid season was 2006 when 8 of 12 made it. In the 13-team Western Conference, that means 69% of teams will qualify for the postseason. Since the Sounders entered the league in 2009, there have only been two seasons (2015-16) when even 60% of the Western Conference made the playoffs. Put another way, the Sounders’ margin for regular-season error has never been bigger.

Key roster moves

  • Aside from Homegrown Players Jacob Castro (goalkeeper) and Sota Kitahara (midfielder), the only veteran addition the Sounders have made this offseason is Héber. The former New York City FC man comes to the Sounders with an impressive resume, having scored at a rate of .60 goals per 90 over four MLS seasons. If he can maintain that type of production, he could prove to be the exact kind of Raúl Ruidíaz replacement the Sounders so badly needed last year.
  • To make room for those three, the Sounders bid farewell to Will Bruin (free agency), Jimmy Medranda (free agency) and Sam Adeniran (trade). Of those three, Bruin was the only one to have played as many as 800 minutes and the Sounders return about 95% of their minutes from last season.
  • Maybe the biggest moves of the offseason, though, were the extensions givens to Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris. Both players were given deals that put them under club control through 2027, effectively guaranteeing that the Sounders will be built around these two players for the foreseeable future.

Reason for optimism

  • If Héber and Ruidíaz can combine for about 3,000 minutes (the rough equivalent to a full season), they’d score about 20 goals based on their historic rates of production during their MLS careers. That’s eight more goals than Ruidíaz and Bruin scored last year. Adding eight goals to the 2022 regular season would have probably given the Sounders anywhere from 6-12 more points, enough to at least made the playoffs.
  • Maybe even more important than the forward production is the return of midfielder João Paulo. In the 13 all-competition matches João Paulo played, the Sounders were 6-3-4 (1.69 points per game) as opposed to 10-16-5 (1.12 PPG). That’s the difference between a pace that would place them second vs. 13th in the Western Conference.
  • The Sounders have also made some tactical adjustments to hopefully make better use of the talent they have. The short explanation of those tweaks are an increased emphasis as vertical movement rather than lateral movement and a shift from their traditional 4-4-2 defensive shape into more of a 3-2-2-3 formation when they’re in possession.

Reason for pessimism

  • This is, effectively, the same roster that finished 11th in the Western Conference last year ... only a year older. As tempting as it is to imagine last year’s injury woes being a thing of the past, there’s absolutely no guarantee that the Sounders will actually be any healthier this year. Somewhat ominously, Ruidíaz looks poised to miss the season opener with a hamstring injury and Obed Vargas has been out for over a month with a quadriceps injury.
  • Those formational tweaks are being made almost as a mask for the lack of a true left-sided attacker. The Sounders are effectively admitting that Nouhou is best used in a three-back formation and are hoping Morris can be the kind of touchline-hugging winger he may not be well equiped for. It’s a formation that seems promising on paper, but has yet to be proven on the field.

Later in the week we’ll have a story detailing all the off-the-field changes for 2023.

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