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Postgame Pontifications: What we’ve learned about Sounders

What upside the Sounders have is likely tied directly to their young players.

Last Updated
5 min read
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — We are now effectively one-third of the way through the 2024 season, which feels like a fair point in the season to start drawing some big-picture conclusions about this team.

Let’s get into a few of them:

Scoring goals is going to be a struggle

I know a lot of people will say this was an obvious result of choosing to make small tweaks in the offseason, but I will note that the biggest acquisition has only played two games and made one start. It’s possible that Pedro de la Vega could end up being the key to unlocking this team’s offensive potential, but relying on that seems a little pointless so let’s put that aside.

In 11 matches, the Sounders have been shut out five times. In four of five home matches, they’ve failed to score a non-penalty goal. Make accommodations for however many key players you want, that’s enough data to tell us that the ceiling for this team’s offensive output is pretty low. The Sounders need to plan accordingly.

While I’m not expecting this team to be a high-flying group, they still have the pieces necessary to be competitive. Take the Galaxy game as an example. The Sounders were able to dictate the terms and limited the Galaxy’s high-flying attack to its lowest xG output of the season (0.4). With the obvious caveat that the Galaxy were missing several key pieces, it’s still notable that stars like Joseph Paintsil and Gabriel Pec were completely neutralized.

Offensively, the Sounders weren’t exactly battering John McCarthy’s goal with chances, but I think it’s still fair to point out that Jalen Neal made three goal-saving plays in the second half alone. If someone else is in place of Neal, there’s a very good chance that Josh Atencio’s cross finds Jordan Morris for a tap-in at 48’; Morris gets a clean look off Obed Vargas’ backheel at 78’; and Danny Musovski taps in Cody Baker’s cross at 90+1’.

But even if one of those shots goes in, we’re probably looking at a very grindy 1-0 win. I wouldn’t expect a result like that to turn around the vibes or shift the narrative away from “boring soccer.” It can be effective soccer, though, and weirdly it gives me confidence the Sounders can still turn this into a productive season.

There’s upside in the youth

In his postgame press conference, head coach Brian Schmetzer was at pains to explain why he’s given such a long leash to many of his veteran starters. To his credit, Schmetzer was a bit quicker with his subs than he usually is, inserting Musovski for Atencio in the 57th minute and making two more subs at 74’.

Schmetzer also admitted that even though they weren’t able to push a goal across the line, he was happy with the energy young players like Vargas, Atencio, Cody Baker, Reed Baker-Whiting, Georgi Minoungou brought to the game. It might be going against his tendencies, but Schmetzer does seem to be realizing that for this team to break out of its funk they need performances like that.

I want to zero-in on Vargas. He did not score or set up any goals, yet for me was the game’s most impactful player. Starting farther up the field as a right mid, I’d say his performance was a revelation if not for the fact that he was coming off a stellar performance against the Philadelphia Union a few days earlier. Vargas was credited with a team-high five shot-creating actions, was the most progressive passer among among the offensive players and generally pressed the game in ways no one else was willing or able to do.

Keeping Vargas in the offensive band will require Schmetzer to have some tough conversations, but at least until de la Vega is fully integrated I think it’s the move that offers the most potential upside. For now, I’d like to see Vargas stay on the right wing as I’m still of the belief that Albert Rusnák is the best option in the middle, but performances like the one against the Galaxy are forcing me to rethink that.

I think the growth curve on Baker-Whiting is going to be a little longer as he missed the better part of six months, but I think there’s genuine upside there too. For all the rust he was clearly shaking off, Baker-Whiting looks like he spent his time on the sideline bulking up in all the right ways. Assuming he can stay healthy, I fully expect him to be a force.

Similarly, I was really happy with the cameo from Georgi Minoungou. His situation is a little more complicated as he’s currently on a short-term loan from Tacoma Defiance and would use up an international roster spot if he were to sign permanently, but he definitely showed some upside. Every touch he had against the Galaxy was toward goal and he gave veteran right back Miki Yamane everything he could handle.

Not sure what to do about the 9

I don’t want any of this to distract from the reality that the Sounders are not playing particularly well and one of their biggest issues is probably the No. 9 spot.

I’m going to start with Ruidíaz, whose six goals certainly look really good on paper. The problem is where those goals are coming from and how they don’t seem to be very repeatable. While he deserves credit for converting his penalties, I can’t imagine the Sounders will continue to draw them at a rate of nearly one every other game. His two other goals are spectacularly taken strikes, but no one can say with a straight face that they expect him to score any additional left-footed volleys from the edge of the penalty area or strikes from near midfield.

A map of his open-play shots illustrates the problem:

Ruidiaz’s 2024 open-play shot map. | via FotMob

Less than half of his shots are from inside the penalty area and none are from inside the six-yard box.

Compare that to 2021, the last time he was mostly healthy, and you’ll see a player who feasted on shots inside the penalty area and especially in the six-yard box.

Ruidiaz’s 2021 open-play shot map. | via FotMob

I think Ruidíaz can still be a useful player, I just am very skeptical he can be the starting No. 9.

Unfortunately, the player who was supposed to be the starting No. 9 isn’t doing much to get his job back. Jordan Morris has just one goal through 11 games, and has frankly looked better coming off the wing than in his starts up top (albeit in a 4-4-2). One thing Morris has been doing, though, is shooting from inside the box. Despite taking 20 fewer rips from open play, all of Morris' shots have at least come from dangerous spots. Morris xG per shot is .14, literally twice as good as Ruidíaz’s .07.

Jordan Morris’ 2024 shot map. | via FotMob

I’m not convinced either player has shown us enough to warrant being the written-in-ink starter, but if I have to choose one I think I’m still inclined to trust Morris more.