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What do the Sounders do if Raul Ruidiaz leaves Seattle?

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Rebuilding a plane while it’s flying isn’t easy, but Garth Lagerwey is up to the task.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The Seattle Sounders are no strangers to difficult contract negotiations with their highest-paid players over the years. It seems like they’ve entered into a new battle this week with star striker Raul Ruidiaz, given reports from a few days ago. Obviously, it would be great if the Sounders could retain their leading goal scorer, but what happens if they can’t or he decides he wants to play elsewhere? If this domino falls, the Sounders have some interesting roster decisions that need to be made this offseason.

The good news is that the Sounders have experience with this, having gone through some level of significant roster upheaval basically every offseason and they’ve managed to keep contending for MLS Cups every year.

Here’s the four things the Sounders could do to shore up their near-term and long-term goals:

Figure out Nicolas Lodeiro’s knee

The 2021 Sounders season was spent waiting for Lodeiro to get fit and that never happened. They can’t spend another season waiting for their captain and evergreen playmaker to get healthy. If Ruidiaz leaves for greener pastures and Lodeiro’s knee isn’t 100%, they should consider buying out his contract to give themselves the ultimate flexibility to “rebuild” the roster. This won’t be cheap because Lodeiro has two years left on his deal, but Lodeiro turns 33 in March of next year and might never be the player he once was, for one reason or another. It’s really hard to say goodbye, but if it’s time then it’s time. Having two DP spots open allows Seattle to enter the transfer market with the future and the present in mind.

The ideal outcome here is that a few more months off gets Lodeiro to 100%.

Acquire a goalscorer

The Sounders have qualified for the 2022 Concacaf Champions League. I’m not sure about you, but I’d like for them to put their best foot forward and not have a CCL campaign be the reason for another frustrating start to their MLS campaign. If Raúl is leaving, that’s a serious dent to their CCL hopes. But what if the Sounders can rebuild for their future and also target being the first MLS team to win CCL?

With the flexibility of entering the transfer market with at least one DP spot, Seattle can get creative — and we know Garth Lagerwey loves to be creative. A short-term loan for a DP striker, such as Vincent Janssen or a similar goal scorer, could be a Ruidíaz-stopgap for the near future, giving a very good Sounders team the ability to have a guy up top to score the big goals in CCL.

This can be a short-term solution while they can target a long-term (ideally younger!) solution with other MLS roster mechanisms. If they sign a short-term DP, they can target a younger striker with the new U22 Initiative rule. A pretty interesting blueprint for this exists with current Golden Boot winner Valentín Castellanos at NYCFC. Castellanos (currently 23 years old) joined NYCFC in 2018 on loan, and officially moved on a permanent deal in 2019. He was slowly integrated into their attack before replacing Héber as their starting striker.

Acquire Garber Bucks for assets

I am not at all suggesting a full teardown and rebuild, but the Sounders have some interesting pieces that could be used in trade deals to acquire Allocation Money to further bolster the roster.

Probably the most valuable asset that would fetch a significant amount of xAM for Seattle would be Nouhou. The fan favorite had a very hot and cold season in 2021 and a change of scenery is probably best for club and player. Should the Sounders remain in a formation that requires three CBs, they should be comfortable entering the 2022 season with Xavier Arreaga, Shane O’Neill, Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Josh Atencio, and AB Cissoko as the options. Perhaps a summer move for another TAM-level CB will be needed, but I think that moving on from Nouhou if there are offers to acquire funds for elsewhere on the roster might be necessary to get this roster in shape for the long-term.

Perhaps there’s trade deals to work out with any of the backup goalkeepers or even the rights to Brad Smith, but I’m not sure what that looks like right now. If a deal is out there to be worked, then I trust Garth can make it.

Give Jordan & Cristian the keys

One of the main reasons for the Sounders' success over the last five years has been because Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan have been adaptable to whatever the team needs in order to win. Both players have played in a few positions in different formations, but the future success in 2022 and beyond needs to be centered around these two’s best positions.

Entering the 2021 season, we probably thought we’d seen the last of Morris as a Sounder. He had finally secured his move aboard to Swansea City, but those dreams came crashing down as he suffered another ACL tear while on loan with the English Championship club. It’s unlikely that Morris will be an attractive proposition for any European club now, so the Sounders should build upon him as the cornerstone of their attack. His best position seems to be either as a wide attacker in a 4-2-3-1/3-4-3 setup or as a second forward in the 3-5-2 formation the Sounders used this season. He does his best work in the channels between opposing teams’ fullback and centerback, so allowing him to do his best work should be at the forefront of Seattle’s minds if they must replace Ruidiaz.

I’m almost positive the only position Roldan hasn’t played as for the Sounders is goalkeeper. His utility and flexibility has been an incredible asset for the Sounders, but it's time for him to settle into a position that suits him best — and in turn, allow the team to succeed in this new phase. It doesn’t take a tactical genius to see that Roldan belongs at the No. 8 position, in the middle of the park. The Sounders could revert back to the 4-2-3-1 next season or remain in this 3-4-3/3-5-2 formation and instantly have the league’s best midfield pairing in Joao Paulo and Roldan at the base of either setup. If you can control the midfield, you’re going to win more games than not. Allowing Roldan the freedom to help dictate tempo and be a late-arriving attacker in the box would mean Roldan is doing what he does best.

Of course, all of this hinges upon what Raúl wants. If he wants to stay in Seattle and the Sounders can pay him an acceptable salary for his services, then I think this team is in great shape to take on the 2022 CCL & MLS campaigns. But if he and the club think they’re better off without each other, then I think the club has compelling options ahead. And as Pedro the Lion sang, “I could never divorce you without a good reason. And though I may never have to, it’s good to have options.”