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What’s behind the decision to bring back Brad Smith?

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The Sounders seem to have effectively played the long game to bring a popular player back.

Max Aquino/Sounder at Heart

A quick accounting of the Seattle Sounders roster would likely tell any semi-informed observer that the position least in need of bolstering was left back. Of course, the same could have been said for last year’s MLS Cup-winning team and, well, that worked out pretty good.

So when the chance to re-sign Brad Smith on a much more salary-cap friendly deal presented itself, Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey did the only sensible thing: He took it.

The Sounders now, once again, have arguably the deepest collection of left backs in MLS history. Any one of Smith, Jones or Nouhou would contend for starting minutes on any team in the league and would likely be the unquestioned No. 1 at the vast majority.

What’s behind the move? Here are my thoughts:

The joys of “optionality”

When Lagerwey first used the word “optionality” to describe what Smith brings to the Sounders, I assumed he had made up the word. Turns out, it’s commonly used in board rooms all over the corporate world as fancy way of saying flexibility. Lagerwey’s thinking is that by adding Smith, he’s given the Sounders more options at other positions. It frees up Jones to play right mid which then allows Cristian Roldan to play in the defensive midfield which might allow Gustav Svensson to move to centerback. That entire sequence of moves may not happen all at once, but you can see how it improves the depth at more than one position.

Playing the long game

When the Sounders first acquired Brad Smith in the summer of 2018, he had two years remaining on a contract that paid him about $1.1 million a year. The Sounders originally were willing to cover about half of that and got him on a one-year loan. They were eventually able to extend the loan to 18 months on similar terms. They chose to let that lapse rather than pick up the full salary or potentially pay a transfer fee. The risk was that they’d lose him forever, but they protected his rights in the Expansion Draft just in case. All that uncertainty seems to have paid off nicely as instead of needing to commit TAM — or maybe even DP — funds to their left back, the Sounders now have their longterm solution at a much more cap-friendly figure as Lagerwey says he’s signed through 2022 and that the deal is back-loaded.

Getting the band back together

In bringing back Smith, the Sounders aren’t just adding a random former player who happened to enjoy his most productive years as a professional here. In addition to whatever he brings on the field, he’s clearly a very popular player off it as well. During an interview with Steve Zakuani, Smith made a comment on how you learn who your real friends are after you leave a team. Apparently, he made a lot of real friends here as guys like Stefan Frei, Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris all remained in touch. Frei even joked that he deserves an agent’s fee for his behind-the-scenes work.

Loving a sequel

As good as the Sounders scouting network is — and maybe exactly because of this — they’ve never been shy about bringing back players for a multiple stints. Since Lagewey took over, the Sounders have now signed eight different players who had previously played for the Sounders. That ranges from role-players like Nathan Sturgis or Bryan Meredith to veterans like Herculez Gomez (who had played under Schmetzer for the USL iteration of the team) or Lamar Neagle (who came back twice). More recently, we’ve seen higher-priced players like Jones and Smith return. That doesn’t even include all the former players who eventually worked for the team in non-playing capacities, including coaches Gonzalo Pineda and Djimi Traore. This partly speaks to the Sounders’ belief in their own assessments, but also speaks to what Lagerwey said was an ethos of “treating players better when they walk out than when they walk in.” Clearly, players are seeing something they like.

Speed Kills

My suspicion is that when most people think of when the Sounders were at their best last year, they have visions of Smith helping overload the left side along with Nicolas Lodeiro and Victor Rodriguez. When they were at their best, it was a devastating combination of technique and quickness. I think the new left-sided combination has the potential to be even more effective. While Morris may not be quite as technical as Rodriguez, he’s got tons more speed and power to go along with a much-improved tactical understanding. Even in the relatively small sample size of seven games they started on the left side together last year — which included all four playoff games — the Sounders went an impressive 6-1-0 with 2.43 goals per game despite neither player putting up gawdy numbers. Once they settle in, this could be a lot of fun.