Based on what we've seen in MLS so far this year, it's my expectation that the Seattle Sounders will be the Western Conference representative in MLS Cup. Let me assure you however, that I make that choice not with my heart as a former player, but with my head.
- Friday Night Soccer: Seattle Sounders vs LAFC (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+, MLS LIVE on DAZN)
From top to bottom Brian Schmetzer and his staff have built another strong squad with good balance and a diverse set of skills. This isn’t an overreaction to the 7-1 victory against San Jose either, it’s down to the fact that I see a team slowly making its way to its top form and expect that to continue in the next few weeks when they will be in full flow. Plus, they just added the dynamic Brad Smith to the roster to further strengthen their defense and attack.
However, with all that said, every team has weaknesses and the Sounders are no exception. Here are the areas where they can still improve:
Center back depth
There was a time when the Sounders were spoiled with a center back rotation of Chad Marshall, Kim Kee-hee and a fully fit and motivated Roman Torres.
Yeimar Gomez Andrade looks like a good signing and the one center back that is sure to start in any big game. Should he get injured, I think the Sounders will encounter problems against some of the more dynamic attacks in the league because he is the one who puts out most of the fires and wins most of his duels.
Shane O’Neill has been better than expected and is doing a solid job, but I still think the Sounders would be vulnerable if they had to depend solely on O’Neill and Xavier Arreaga for an extended period of time. Arreaga has been prone to the odd mistake here and there, and without Yeimar I can see the Sounders struggling against speedier forwards.
Three-time MLS defender of the year Chad Marshall isn’t going to come back walking through the door, so this is an area the team can stand to strengthen to ensure they can withstand an injury or loss of form in that position.
It’s no secret that the Sounders are lethal when attacking on the left. Through Jordan Morris, and sometimes an overlapping left back, they are very direct on the left, especially when Nico Lodeiro makes his way over there to add extra numbers.
The right midfield position has been more of a revolving door.
Miguel Ibarra, Handwalla Bwana, Cristian Roldan and Joevin Jones have all seen time at right midfield and each plays the role in his own way, but no one has become the constant threat the Sounders will need to balance the attack on days where the left hand side isn’t at its best. Roldan does a good job out wide, but whether he starts on the right or in center midfield, he does his best work in the middle of the park because he wants to tuck in and provide cover.
Especially with the arrival of Brad Smith, the Sounders have extra cover at left back and that should see Joevin Jones getting more time at right midfield. If he is playing at his best, this position will be less of an issue for the Sounders than I am suggesting here: Jones can be a real game changer with his unpredictability and link-up play.
Since his return from his stint in Germany, Jones hasn’t consistently hit the heights he hit in his first spell with the Sounders, but in recent weeks there are signs that he is getting back to his very best. He was outstanding in the 7-1 win against San Jose when he started on the right. If Joevin Jones can put in Joevin Jones level performances on a weekly basis at right midfield, the Sounders will be just as potent attacking from the right as they are from the left.
Opponents that sit and counter
The Sounders have only lost twice this season and both losses were somewhat identical in that Seattle dominated possession but failed to generate the kind of chances which that level of possession should create.
Both the Chicago Fire FC (2-1 Sounders loss at the MLS is Back Tournament), and the Portland Timbers (another 2-1 Sounders loss on September 6) were happy to sit back, cede possession and try to hit the Sounders on the counterattack. While the Sounders, for the most part, defended the counterattack well in both games, they had trouble breaking down the Fire and Timbers low block. They had just four shots on goal in both games combined and their dangerous attackers didn’t enjoy the space they normally thrive in.
Few teams can beat the Sounders by going all out, toe-to-toe, against them and so they are likely to see a few more deep-lying formations before season's end. The easy solution would be to score first since that will force the opponent to be a bit more aggressive and then the spaces will appear.
But there are other options such as playing with two forwards—either Will Bruin or Jordan Morris alongside Raul Ruidíaz—in order to occupy both center backs and have more numbers in the box for crosses. They can also play with two attacking mids instead of one to: 1) create more passing options between the lines and 2) create space out wide that the opposing holding mids can’t cover.
I have no doubt that Brian Schmetzer and his staff have considered several options for future instances in which they have 70 percent of the ball but find themselves unable to do much with it. They are bound to face this scenario in single-elimination playoff matches and it's probably the single biggest challenge they'll face on the road to defending their title.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.