The new MLS season starts today, and with so little change on the Seattle Sounders roster it’s easy enough to feel a little bit bored by the familiarity of it all. Factor in the way the 2022 season ended and the 1-0 result against Al Ahly in the FIFA Club World Cup, and there’s understandable concern that the same team won’t simply be better than last year’s.
There have been some small changes to the roster — Will Bruin’s moved on to Austin, and Héber has joined from NYCFC to fortify the attack — and a tactical tweak to keep things fresh, but ultimately it’ll be the players on the field that determine whether the Sounders are challenging for silverware or facing the wrong kind of playoff streak. So in a largely unchanged roster, who’s going to make the difference?
Here’s a player from each line who — whether through return from injury, development and growth, or other contributing factors — could prove to be a game-changer in 2023.
Héber is, admittedly, the obvious choice here. Raúl Ruidíaz is starting the season much the same way he spent large portions of the last couple of seasons — somewhere short of full health. Fredy Montero is still Fredy Montero: more than capable of turning up when he’s needed like he did with his 3 goals against León in CCL last year, but not exactly suited to a load-bearing role at this point in his career. Enter the Sounders’ newest Brazilian player.
Héber has averaged 0.75 goal contributions per 90 minutes since coming to MLS in 2019, finishing 5th in MVP voting that year. He’s spent time as both a substitute and a starter, averaging right around 45 minutes per appearance across all competitions. He did miss a year to an ACL injury from September 2020 to September 2021, but all indications are that the injury is behind him.
In the Sounders’ final preseason game against Louisville City, Héber got the start and gave a good accounting of himself, popping up at the back post on a corner to open the scoring with a calm and professional finish. He’s got skills to offer well beyond poacher’s goals, though, as he showed off promising and capable hold-up play, not unlike what Montero offers but with a bigger frame to help hold off opponents. He should help to facilitate and finish attacking movements as Seattle aim to make the playoff miss of 2022 a one-off.
Jordan Morris is very good. When he’s been consistently healthy and available, he’s been among the best attacking players in MLS. After coming back from his second major ACL injury, he had a down year in 2022. Even in a down year, Morris still averaged a goal contribution every 258 minutes. That’s pretty good when opposing teams were pretty effectively able to neutralize him by limiting his ability to get on the ball in space, and who was frequently without a consistent scoring threat on the receiving end of his passes when he did get in behind. Outside of 2016 — his rookie season — and 2017 — a season where he was often playing through injury — Morris has frequently outperformed his expected goals and expected assists. In 2022, however, Morris had 7 goals and 2 assists off of 8.9 xG and 4.37 xA.
That seems likely to change this year. There may be no individual player more likely to benefit from the tactical shift Brian Schmetzer and his staff have cooked up than Morris, who should have more freedom to prowl the left side of the field in the opponent’s half to find space and be a frequent target of line-breaking passes from Jackson Ragen and Xavier Arreaga — whichever one is on the field. Factor in the addition of Héber as an end-point for Morris’s cutback passes inside the box, and the fact that Morris has now got a full healthy season under his belt and he’s poised for a return to the kind of productivity that helped propel the Sounders to the 2019 MLS Cup, earned him a spot in the 2020 MLS Best XI and 2020 MVP consideration.
There’s been some skepticism about Morris’s ability to perform as a “chalk on his boots” winger out on the left, where he’ll need to spend a lot of time with Seattle’s new system, but that seems to be largely unfounded. He’s done it before, and he can do it again. His heat map from CCL last year, where he earned a tournament Best XI spot, looks very similar to the one here from 2020.
I don't know that Jordan Morris is ever going to be a classic touchline-hugging winger, but his 2020 heatmap suggests he can do something like that. Here's how he looked in his Best XI season vs. last season. pic.twitter.com/9UaE5IVAjk— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) February 23, 2023
You know him, you love him, he’s one of the best midfielders in MLS, and he missed most of last season after tearing his ACL in the Champions League Final: He’s João Paulo. In 2021 JP was an MVP finalist, the only member of the final four for the award who isn’t primarily a goal scorer or creator.
He was really good, and even if his main job isn’t to set up or knock down goals he still had 3 goals and 11 assists in that 2021 season. And now he’s back. João Paulo is an incredible player; he makes his teammates better and their jobs easier, he’s strong and effective with a tackle, he takes up the right spots in possession and out of it, and he picks out the right pass when it matters the most. He allows the Sounders to play the way they want in a way that no other player on the squad can quite replicate. He’s a metronome, but a really heavy one that might hurt you if you try to stop it. And he’s back. Long may he jort.
Jackson Ragen really burst onto the scene at the start of 2022 when he entered the lineup while Yeimar Gómez Andrade was dealing with an injury. A shaky performance against CF Montreal at the end of June and a red card in the 3-0 home loss against the Portland Portland Timbers in July seemed to vaporize a bit of the confidence and trust in Ragen that had been built up, and after making 12 starts in 13 appearances he only had two more starts and accrued 309 minutes over the final three months of the season.
For all the challenges he faced in his second professional season and first in MLS, Ragen seems to be better positioned going into 2023. At least for the time being, he seems to have claimed the starting spot alongside Gómez Andrade through his own merit rather than as a result of injuries elsewhere. He started at the Club World Cup, with the first-choice group against Louisville City, and seems to have a firm grip on the spot. Schmetzer has called out Ragen’s passing ability and range from the backline as being an important factor in how the new system of play will work in possession, as his long-range diagonal balls can help to get the ball to Jordan Morris in dangerous positions and create transition opportunities at the blink of an eye. Add in Ragen’s size, and he’s a potentially valuable presence when both attacking and defending set-pieces — a pain point in 2022.
He’s still got room to grow and adjust to the challenges of MLS, which will come with some growing pains, but his baseline is good and his potential could be something special. The Sounders could have a Defender of the Year-caliber player on their hands if they can foster Ragen’s development and help him ride out the tough stretches, and he in turn could help them return to being among the league’s perennial title contenders.
Stefan Frei had a decent year last year, according to FBRef his Post-shot expected goals - Goals Allowed (PSxG-GA) of +0.11/90 was 82nd percentile in MLS, and his 74% save percentage was 84th percentile. It wasn’t his best year, but he and the defense were far from terrible despite how the season turned out. His Goals Against/90 of 1.41 was his third worst mark in his nine seasons in Seattle (in 2019 he put up 1.44 and in 2014 he averaged 1.51) but was still decidedly middle of the road (60th percentile). Even if he just repeated last year that’s still a solid foundation for the team to build off of.
The one real outlier in Frei’s stats from last year was his percentage of crosses stopped. In 2022, Frei stopped 2.1% of crosses into the penalty area in MLS play, a rate that put him in the 2nd percentile among goalkeepers. That’s not great. Even if that was a systemic choice to allow the CBs in front of him to handle crosses, it’s a significant departure from Frei’s game in previous seasons. In 2021 Frei stopped 5.7% (90th percentile), in 2020 he stopped 5.9% (92nd), in 2019 he stopped 5.5% (75th) and in 2018 he stopped an unreal 8.3% (96th). Whether intentional or not, the shift ceded control of the penalty area, something that’s been a hallmark of Frei’s game when he’s been at or among the top of MLS GKs.
If Frei can return to his penalty area dominance of old, along with the increased security and stability of having JP in the midfield, the Seattle defense should be even better than last year and provide a platform for a resurgent attack as well.
Nothing is guaranteed, and there weren’t many changes following a frustrating season, but right now there’s still plenty of reason to be excited about what this season has in store. We’re the Seattle F***ing Sounders. We go again.