SEATTLE — When the clock finally ran out on the Seattle Sounders 2022 season, it came with more of a whimper than a wail. The Sounders had just endured probably the strangest season in their history — becoming the first MLS team to win Concacaf Champions League only to miss the playoffs for the first time in franchise history less than six months later — and it probably made sense that the end was met with some degree of resignation.
Understandable as that might have been at the moment, that was not the kind of reaction that was going to drive the team forward.
After briefly stepping away, the Sounders’ front office and coaching staff spent a good deal of the offseason figuring out how to avoid a repeat. Rather than completely blowing up the roster and abandoning a system that had known almost nothing but success, they settled on what amounted to a multi-pronged refresh.
That manifested itself both in the physical appearance of the Sounders training facility and also in the mental and technical aspects of the gameplay.
Whether or not it actually worked will start to become apparent today when the Sounders kick off their 15th MLS season against the Colorado Rapids. But you didn’t have to look to hard to find evidence of it paying off during preseason. The players showed up to camp in better fitness than ever before and there was a positive energy that came from the sessions that wasn’t always there last season. Stefan Frei and Jordan Morris were even sporting new looks.
Here’s what the Sounders did:
The physical space
When the Sounders first moved into Starfire ahead of their inaugural MLS season in 2009, the training facility was considered among the best in North America. Some 14 years later, virtually every team is now housed in newer and/or fancier spaces. That’s the main reason the Sounders will be moving into their own state-of-the-art facility next season.
But it was not just that others had passed them by that made Starfire feel out-of-date. The reality is that the Sounders hadn’t been investing a ton into their space. When Starfire upgraded its workout equipment, for instance, the Sounders bought the old stuff and put it in a tent outside their training locker room.
The decision to have a dedicated space outside was at least initiated by Covid-19 protocols, but has since become more of a commentary on how the Sounders had mentally moved on from the space and allowed it to degrade somewhat. At the very least, it was not an environment that made players want to spend extra time there.
Sensing all of this, assistant coach Andy Rose helped initiate an offseason plan to spruce up the space which involved everything from fresh paint to hanging different signage to replacing some couches with tables to upgrading the coffee machine to bringing in new weight workout equipment.
“When I came back, the environment at Starfire looked very similar to when I [first signed as a player] in 2012,” Rose told Sounder at Heart in the most diplomatic way possible. “The new training ground is coming, which is great, but we can’t forget about this year and trying to make little things better.
“If you walked in there in the offseason and walked in there now a lot has changed. Those are things we won’t have to worry about in the new facility, but for now that’s been enjoyable to get more out of the space.”
The players seem to have noticed. While there were no reports of anything like a toxic locker-room environment last season, it had become more common for players to show up shortly before training started and leave almost as soon as they were finished with team-mandated activites.
“You see more guys in the gym, more guys there on their own time, more guys not being forced to go into the gym,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “That’s what you want. You want to create an environment where guys are happy to do the extra things at the facility. Starfire is maybe a little outdated but there are still ways to make it better and create a space for us professionals to get better.”
It’s not just fitness work, either. Players are more prone to hang out and chat, take a little longer eating or playing an extra game of ping-pong.
This, too, was partly by design.
Family outing tonight— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) February 24, 2023
Thank you for having us, @SeattleKraken! pic.twitter.com/IGzI5LROMr
One policy that Craig Waibel implemented when he took over as the Sounders’ new General Manager was to have at least one weekly interaction that was “not a meeting.”
“The last couple years have been a real challenge culturally in a world pandemic,” he said. “It caused a lot of physical separation, a lot of emotional separation. Just bringing back the idea the last 2-3 months of being around each other. We don’t have to talk about soccer, we don’t have to problem-solve all the time. We can just be human. We’ve not only been humanizing ourselves back to the players, but really letting everyone be vulnerable in front of each other, having a locker room-type idea and bringing that into play has been empowering for a lot of people.”
The mental space
Of course, changing the physical environment was not going to be enough. Subpar as the facilities may be, the Sounders still managed to win CCL and were actually in a playoff spot at the midway point of the season. It was not the training equipment’s fault that the Sounders went 4-10-3 during the second half of the season. In Brian Schmetzer’s own words, opponents had basically figured out the Sounders and some complacency had possibly even set in.
Still, it wasn’t as if the Sounders completely fell apart, either. Of those 10 losses, nine were by just a single goal. On the season, 15 of the Sounders’ 17 losses were by just one goal, allowing them to actually finish the season with a +1 goal-difference.
Given the relatively small margins — and knowing that João Paulo was likely to return after missing the final final five months after tearing his ACL — the Sounders determined that tactical tweaks were more important than a dramatic roster turnover.
Rose and fellow assistant Freddy Juarez were charged with implementing much of that change. They spent a good deal of the offseason watching teams like Manchester City and Arsenal, who are considered among the leaders in the kind of positional play that is becoming common throughout Europe.
“In the offseason, as a staff we talked a lot about what other teams around the world are doing and the skillsets of our players and how we can get the best out of them,” Rose explained.
The Sounders also looked at 2021, when they mostly played out of a three-back formation and how that highlighted the defensive strengths of Nouhou. They also wanted a formation that could maximize on the passing ability of centerbacks like Jackson Ragen and Xavier Arreaga; that allowed Alex and Cristian Roldan to make the most out of their chemistry on the right side; that highlighted the speed and 1-v-1 ability of Jordan Morris; and that shared the playmaking among Nicolás Lodeiro, Albert Rusnák and João Paulo.
The tactical approach is a bit of a hybrid, often looking like a basic 4-4-2 with two pressing forwards in defense and morphing into more of a 3-2-2-3 in possession.
The overarching idea was to give the players clear direction while still allowing for individual interpretations and creativity.
“As a player, I think you just want clarity from the coaching staff,” said Rose, who was a player himself as recently as 2021. “It’s been fun to come up with new ideas and really dissecting those ideas and having discussions around getting the most out of our players. I think they’ve enjoyed that so far.
“I think we need to commit to it and allow the players to be fluid and creative in those positions.”
Given that this is MLS — a league where a reigning Western Conference finalist can lose its home opener to an expansion team — nothing should be taken for granted. That the Sounders followed their history-making run by missing the playoffs due to a collapse at a time when they usually kick into gear was almost predictable. Any number of things could happen this year that could cause a repeat of last year.
But the Sounders have definitely made some genuine efforts to refine their processes, to not simply assume that their talent will be enough. One of the things that was highlighted at the end of last year was how there was hardly any internal competition — as long as the presumed starters were healthy their spots were essentially secure. It’s perhaps another sign of how things have changed that Jackson Ragen will likely start the regular-season opener ahead of Xavier Arreaga, who was good enough to make Ecuador’s World Cup roster.
It’s maybe a smaller, but just as telling sign, that even someone relatively reserved like Jordan Morris will begin the season with a bold, bleached hairstyle.
“I just had to do a little bit of a change,” he said. “We’ll see how long it lasts.”