The Seattle Sounders are heading into the 2021 MLS season with a new look in attack. Head coach Brian Schmetzer, who has almost exclusively deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation throughout his tenure, has spent much of preseason teasing a system where the team lines up with two forwards.
With preseason training camp underway as the Sounders prepare to play that way, the team is doing so without standout striker Raul Ruidiaz.
"Raul is still trying to get his green card," Schmetzer said during a virtual press conference.
The situation means the forward remains in his native Peru, working with national team staff to stay fit as preseason camp continues in Washington. The head coach admits it is a hindrance in the short term, but said he's confident Ruidiaz is maintaining his fitness and will be able to join the group soon.
"Raul is a pretty good pro," Schmetzer said. "He's been resilient. He's a forward. He'll find his rhythm but yes, there are some frustrations there because with the different tactics of trying to play with two forwards, obviously we'd love to have him here but he'll pick it up fairly quickly. I'm sure he's played in various formations in his career with the guy next to him."
For now, Ruidiaz is staying fit by working with staff from Peru's national team, who Schmetzer said he will get in touch with before Ruidiaz returns to the United States. The head coach is also keeping tabs on his player through something that does a fairly good job at overcoming geography: Instagram.
"Hopefully he's doing the physical work that he shows on his Instagram account because I've been watching Raul," Schmetzer said. "I've been watching that account very closely."
Otherwise, Schmetzer has access to most of his players. The coach said one of the positive developments after a few weeks of preseason is that injuries have not been a concern, allowing the players to get familiar with a new set up ahead of the opening game of the season against Minnesota United on April 16. That includes Fredy Montero, who returns to Seattle after playing his final game for the club in November 2012. Schmetzer noted he would be useful in attack, but that like any new arrivals, there is an adjustment period.
"I think some of the changes that Fredy has to be prepared for are we’re a team that presses a little higher up the field than Vancouver," Schmetzer said. "Our defending schemes are a little bit different, the roles and responsibilities there have changed for him a little bit. But he’s eager to come back and make an impact. And Fredy being a good young man, he’s buying in and he’s doing what we ask of him on both sides of the ball."
Schmetzer also highlighted some of the young players the club is hoping will prove to be ready to break into the Sounders' roster all over the pitch. He said 15-year-old Tacoma Defiance midfielder Reed Baker-Whiting remains "the front-runner in the clubhouse" when it comes to emerging talent, but three more players seem poised to make the jump sooner rather than later.
"Juan Alvarez is a young attacking player that has tremendous potential," Schmetzer said. "Sota Kitahara has really changed. ... Smaller profile, not physically imposing, good passer. Was he a right back, was he a holding midfielder? You look at him now, he’s filled out. ... I would say that Cody Baker is another one on my list. He’s been a surprise. He might not quite be ready, but he’s going to be ready."
One long-standing truth about the Sounders remains, though, as the team evolves: "There is a ton of competition for the last couple of spots."