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Might these World Cup players be on Sounders’ wish list?

We followed the crumbs left by Craig Waibel and this is where they led us.

Japan Portraits - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Photo by Adam Pretty - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

With the winter international transfer window fast approaching, it’s easy for the mind to wander, imagining which player-personnel surprise the new year might hold. When your team announces a new general manager who teases that maybe they’re looking at a player who’s at the World Cup, that wondering gains a bit more intent and directed.

So let’s say you’ve got a list of countries or regions in mind, and maybe that new GM also suggested that the team is looking in places they’ve seldom or never looked before; now you’ve really got something to work with. You start looking at current rosters, you think about what you know about the salary situation and where the team could use reinforcements and what kind of player they’d need.

That’s the exact situation many of us have found ourselves in ever since the press conference introducing Craig Waibel as the new Seattle Sounders GM and his comments about scouting.

Not long ago, at the Annual Business Meeting, Garth Lagerwey indicated that the team had room to potentially add a TAM player or two, so we’ve got a bit of a price range — TAM can be used to sign a new player whose transfer and salary exceed the league maximum salary charge (about $650,000 in 2023) and are under the TAM max (nearly $1.7M in 2023). The Sounders’ most obvious current roster needs are probably backup fullbacks, and young-ish options at forward and on the wing. A TAM signing probably makes the most sense in attacking positions, as the Sounders have typically chosen to invest at those spots over others, and they’re particularly sparse up top at the moment, so we’ll focus on striker as we hypothesize.

Seattle have done a pretty good job of casting their eyes across the globe as they search for talent, but there are still places they’ve not focused much attention — either in terms of player nationalities or leagues that they play in. Waibel seemed to suggest that new markets and leagues are opening up to the Sounders and the league as more resources and finances can be dedicated, but there are still some markets that seem like unlikely shopping options for the club.

Despite significant Asian-American and Pacific-Islander communities in the region, the Sounders have had very few AAPI players, and the only Asian league they’ve signed players from is the Chinese Super League. They’ve never had a Japanese player, and Kim Kee-hee is the only Korean player to play for the Sounders’ first team. With both South Korea and Japan still in the tournament, that’s where we’ll start our search.

Gue-sung Cho: Gue-sung Cho played himself into a bit of the spotlight, and possibly out of the Sounders’ reach, with his brace in South Korea’s 3-2 loss against Senegal during the Group Stage at the World Cup. It’s unfortunate because he’s a ton of fun. The 24-year-old striker makes smart runs, gets into good spots in the penalty area, uses his 6-foot-3 frame well, and has a habit of putting all of that together to finish chances. In 2022 he had 21 goals and 5 assists in 35 all-competitions appearances for the K League’s Jeonbuk Hyundai. According to Transfermarkt, his estimated market value is at $1.4 million right now, with at least Korea’s Round of 16 game against Brazil still to be played.

With his production at club level and having earned a starting spot at the World Cup, Gue-sung Cho might be looking for a more regular or prominent role than backing up Raúl Ruidíaz. Assuming the fee required doesn’t go absolutely wild after the World Cup, he could be an option, but the pitch to get him here might be tough. If they were to bring him in, he could be a good change of approach option, as well as a possible partner for Ruidíaz in a two-forward look, beyond just being the backup striker.

Ayase Ueda: Ayase Ueda would check two separate “never have I ever” categories for the Sounders, who have never signed an international player from Japan, nor have they signed anyone out of the Belgian Jupiler Pro League. The fact that he’s in Belgium actually probably provides the largest hurdle to him coming to Seattle, as he only just moved from Kashima Antlers in the J League to Cercle Brugge in July 2022. Prior to the move, Ueda bagged 14 goals and 2 assists in 23 all competitions appearances for Kashima, and since joining Cercle Brugge has kept scoring at a solid rate despite adjusting to a new league with 8 goals in 18 appearances. His only appearance at the World Cup was a start against Costa Rica, but he was pulled at halftime.

Ueda actually has some elements to his game that aren’t unfamiliar to anyone who’s watched Ruidíaz. A melding of awareness, technique, and body control allows him to get off shots at unexpected moments. He can score from outside of the box, and gets into good positions to create his own shot or finish off a play inside the area as well. Transfermarkt estimates his transfer value at $2 million, but if Cercle Brugge were going to be convinced to sell him, and he was going to be convinced to move again, it would probably cost enough to potentially be out of Seattle’s current price range. Plus, at his age and with his recent move and success, the same issue with moving to be a backup comes up here as well.

Shuto Machino: First of all, Shuto Machino might be the most incredible name I’ve ever seen. It’s perfect, 10/10, no notes. Talk about nominative determinism; Machino is a 23-year-old striker currently at the World Cup with Japan. Although he has yet to see the field, he plays his club football for Shonan Bellmare in the J League. He was somewhat streaky in 2022 — only his second season actually playing in the first tier — but scored 15 goals with 2 assists across all competitions in 2,191 minutes. Machino seems to have a knack for getting himself in goal-scoring positions, often by finding gaps either in or behind a defense and doing what it takes to be in those gaps when the ball gets there. His touch is good, and he seems to at least be quick enough to take advantage of the space a defense gives him, to go along with his scoring. As an added bonus Machino can play as a striker or possibly on the right wing.

Machino seems like a good fit, as he’s still playing in Japan but seems poised to make a move to a bigger stage. At his age, the Sounders might be more able to sell him on the idea of getting regular minutes right away, but not necessarily being the starter, and his price should be within the range the Sounders could work with. As an added bonus, he should be pretty comfortable in Rave Green. He’s also got a signature celebration, and who doesn’t love that?

Another region where the Sounders haven’t done much business is Africa. There have been obvious exceptions — Obafemi Martins, Djimi Traore and Nouhou are just a few prominent examples of players from Africa to play for the Sounders, all taking different routes to get here — but the team has never had a Ghanaian player. Players from Ghana have had plenty of success in MLS, and around the world, making their national team a logical resource for scouting talent. Looking at Ghana’s World Cup roster, one player in particular jumps out from a Seattle perspective.

Antoine Semenyo — Antoine Semenyo is a 22-year-old striker currently at the World Cup with Ghana who plays for Bristol City in the Championship, although he’s had a couple of loan spells elsewhere in English football. His highlights are electric. Equally capable of setting up a teammate or scoring a goal himself, he can punish teams in transition or unlock a set defense with a bit of skill and a finish or a pass. The current season has been a little slow for him, with 4 goals and 1 assist in 18 appearances — although only 918 minutes — across all competitions for Bristol City, but last season he had 8 goals and 12 assists in 2,166 total minutes. He would be an outstanding signing.

Transfermarkt currently estimates his fee to be around $3 million, which is probably the upper end of what the Sounders could manage, even spread out over the life of a contract. The other complicating factor here is that because Semenyo plays in the Championship, someone smarter than me that actually works for a club probably spotted him a while ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if, should the Sounders be looking at him, they’d be competing with bigger clubs for his signature.

There are obviously other potential options out there — take a look at Morocco’s squad — who could meet the Sounders’ needs and potentially fit within their budget constraints, but these four stood out after some digging. Maybe one of them will actually end up taking the pitch at Lumen Field next year, maybe a couple will, or maybe this was just a fun exercise. These are my transfer theories, though, and I’m sticking to them.

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