Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

The Blueprint: How Seattle Sounders have built & maintained a CCL contender

The Seattle Sounders have been the model of MLS consistency since their arrival in the league back in 2009.

There is no good-faith debate against that – they have made the playoffs every year of their existence, compiling a league-record 13-season streak, won a Supporters’ Shield, two MLS Cups and four US Open Cups along the way, and are now on the verge of potentially making history by becoming the first MLS team to win this iteration of the Concacaf Champions League. Whether they manage that last part or not Wednesday night vs. Pumas (10 pm ET | FS1, TUDN), it is an unprecedented run.

And thus we would be stupid not to try to learn from what they have done right because, by the nature of being in a salary-capped league, Seattle’s blueprint is replicable. You are free to copy off Adrian Hanauer’s homework.

Before we dive in, though, let me make two things clear:

  • You don’t have to emulate Seattle in order to build a contender. I just think it’s easier if you do.
  • None of this works at this level without the right coach. Brian Schmetzer is obviously the right coach for Seattle.

Ok, let’s dive into the blueprint, and understand that there is one guiding principle that is then followed by sub-principles that are a little more fungible:

The Guiding Principle: Build and maintain a proven MLS core

This works at any budget point in the league. If you’re a small-spending team with almost no DPs, but have a very good developmental path and a veteran, MLS-proven core, you’re the Rapids. If you do that and have an elite developmental path, you’re the Union. If you do that and make elite developmental signings from overseas, you’re NYCFC. If you do that and have a good developmental path and elite DPs, you’re the Sounders.

Going back basically to 2009, you will find this team has always had a handful (sometimes seven or eight, sometimes as few as three or four, but always a bunch of them) of guys in prominent roles who are either MLS lifers, or guys who have taken their shot elsewhere and decided MLS is the life for them. In an ideal world you end up with something like the exact mix the Sounders have, where the “core” expands to include the DPs as well as Homegrown products, SuperDraft picks and TAM guys, and it becomes a self-sustaining cycle. New additions come in and immediately work to fit in. This is as true for new DP signings (remember how seamless it was for Joao Paulo?) as it is for free-agent acquisitions (Kelyn Rowe’s ability to soak up minutes at four spots has been a godsend for a team trying to juggle as many as 50 games per calendar year).

All of the above also puts the right kind of pressure on Homegrown products, who invariably come into a team that knows its business and thus has clear expectations for what success, on both an individual and collective level, looks like. This works for draft picks as well, obviously – just look at the Roldan brothers.

Here are three recent cautionary tales, two of teams with big budgets and big expectations and one that's always had to moderate their spending, that didn’t really follow this path:

  • LAFC post-2019
  • Atlanta post-2018
  • Sporting KC over the past couple of years

The first two teams veered hard in the direction of shiny new acquisitions over proven solidity, and have suffered for it. To John Thorrington’s credit, though, he immediately identified the issue and righted the ship this offseason, using basically every acquisition device at his disposal to add MLS veterans to the still-talented-but-also-kinda-directionless holdovers. In his work this winter he came away with more than 1,000 games worth of league experience by adding Kellyn Acosta, Ilie Sanchez, Ryan Hollingshead, Maxime Crepeau and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, and I do not think it’s a coincidence LAFC are atop the Supporters’ Shield race right now.

Atlanta have been slower to address their “MLS experience” gap, and have struggled because of it for the third straight season. There is a disjointedness and instability in how they play despite the fact they literally hired Seattle’s top assistant (Gonzalo Pineda) as their new head coach last summer.

Sporting, meanwhile, were until a few years ago Seattle’s only real competition for “model MLS club” based upon their stability and continued excellence. But while Seattle were able to seamlessly transition from one era to another, turning new additions into pieces of that veteran core, Peter Vermes hasn’t quite threaded that needle. There has been no new Benny Feilhaber, Matt Besler or Ike Opara, no heir apparent to slot in for Ilie or to push the likes of Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza into part-time status.

When Seattle have been ready to transition guys out of core status, the replacement has always been lined up and ready to slot in. It’s hard to do that – it takes a degree of ruthlessness as well as clear-eyed talent assessment (Bruce Arena, for example, has always struggled with this when his guys age out) – but it’s necessary in order to keep the train rolling.

Sub-Principle No. 1: Get at least one elite center back

This is Bobby Warshaw’s old “Chad Marshall Theorem.” Here, in Bobby’s own words (from 2018), is the explanation:

The Chad Marshall Theorem has two parts.

1. Center back is a position that lifts everyone else on your team. If you have a good player there, it opens up your options to do other things. You can’t press without a center back that can run; you can’t sit deep without a center back that’s commanding in the box; you can’t possess without a center back that can pass. So while that player is not only obviously vital, they generally provide the base/floor for what you can do.

2. Center back is the weakest position in MLS right now, so it’s an opportunity for competitive advantage. If you don’t have a bad center back – or even better, if you have an elite one – you have a talent advantage. And because some teams have center backs that are so bad, it’s a bigger margin to gain.

I’m not sure that second point holds up anymore – center back has become one of the stronger positions since 2018, which not coincidentally was the most fun year in MLS history. But regardless, you can’t win hardware in this league if you don’t have at least one elite center back, and preferably one who provides some flexibility in how you can play.

Seattle’s front office has been remarkable in the way they’ve been able to transition from Marshall to Kim Kee-Hee to the current Yeimar Gomez Andrade/Xavier Arreaga era (and to be fair, they had every reason to punt on Arreaga after 12 months, but did a great job of sticking with him to the point that he is clearly, now, an asset).

Some good teams, including the Sounders, go out and spend on center backs. Others, like Philly, have a knack for developing them.

However you go about it, though, you’ve got to figure out how to be borderline dominant in central defense if you’re going to win anything in this league. It’s why I will never fault a team for reaching on a center back prospect in the SuperDraft – if you think that guy can turn into Marshall, or Besler, or Opara, or even like an Andrew Farrell or Kamal Miller-level guy, it’s 100% worth it.

Sub-Principle No. 2: Don’t skimp on the spine

At d-mid Seattle went from Ozzie Alonso, to Gustav Svensson, to Joao Paulo. The first is the best d-mid in MLS history, the second was a starter for Sweden, and the third was signed as a full-fledged DP and was second on my MVP ballot last year.

The Sounders’ front office didn’t take risks there – they didn’t bet on a kid with potential at the most important spot on the field. They went with veterans they knew could get it done because they’d been getting it done for a good long while.

Look at NYCFC, who didn’t hand the job to James Sands – he had to beat out Alex Ring for it. And then when they knew they were going to sell Sands, they went out and got a young kid with potential (Nico Acevedo) as well as a proven veteran (Alfredo Morales) in case the kid didn’t work out (he hasn’t). It’s a surprise Keaton Parks is actually the best answer at d-mid for the Pigeons, but the NYCFC front office put a ton of resources into that spot and gave Ronny Deila his choice of solutions.

This same principle holds true at center back (even the Union spend on proven center backs) and further upfield, which we’re going to get to in a minute. You can absolutely get lucky and find/develop a young player who’s ready to be what Sands was for last year’s NYCFC, but you can’t count on that. You have to have contingency plans, and that means serious investment.

Sub-Principle No. 3: Get a DP chance creator who’s in his prime & has had success in multiple leagues

I was originally going to have this as “get a DP No. 10,” but there is enough variance in team approach that I’ll just say “chance creator” in order to open up the possibility a winger is the right call.

Regardless, the Sounders got Nico Lodeiro at age 27. He’d had success in Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina (and experience, if not necessarily success, in the Netherlands) as well as on the international stage. He has been the centerpiece of the most consistent team in the league since his arrival.

NYCFC got Maxi Moralez at age 29. He’d had success in Argentina and Italy, and has been a focal point in the Bronx since his arrival.

And those, my friends, have been the two best teams in the league since 2016.

Most other high-level MLS playmakers who’ve led their teams to significant success – Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Lucas Zelarayan, Alejandro Pozuelo, Carles Gil, Victor Vazquez, Sacha Kljestan – all fit pretty snugly into the above parameters.

This isn’t the only way to success, as guys like Miguel Almiron and Brenden Aaronson are notable outliers. But No. 10s in their prime who’ve been good in multiple leagues have an astonishing hit rate in MLS, and there is no better example than Lodeiro.

Sub-Principle No. 4: Make your next big spend at center forward

Here are the last nine MLS Cup-winning center forwards, listed in sequential order:

  • Taty Castellanos (NYC, ‘21)
  • Gyasi Zardes (CLB, ‘20)
  • Raul Ruidiaz (SEA, ‘19)
  • Josef Martinez (ATL, ‘18)
  • Jozy Altidore (TOR, ‘17)
  • Nelson Valdez (SEA, ‘16)
  • Fanendo Adi (POR, ‘15)
  • Gyasi Zardes (LA, ‘14)
  • Dom Dwyer (SKC, ‘13)

Every single one of those guys either came into the league as a DP or was developed into one (except for Taty, who’s still not a DP, but is going to be sold for something like $15 million this summer).

You can win the Shield without an elite No. 9 – a few recent teams have done it. But you can’t win MLS Cup without a guy who bags a goal every other game.

The best way to find that guy is to do what Seattle did: go out and spend something close to $10 million on a DP No. 9 to pair with your DP No. 10. Though bear in mind the hit rate on imported No. 9s isn’t quite as high as it is on No. 10s (it’s still pretty high).

Barring that path, be ready and willing to make moves for high-upside young players like Dwyer, Zardes and Taty were once upon a time. And be willing to slot them into the XI ahead of veterans, which is how they won their respective MLS Cups (when Gyasi won his first, anyway). Which leads us to the next principle…

Sub-Principle No. 5: Have a reliable developmental path

The Timbers had prime Diego Chara and Valeri together for damn near a decade, and supported them with significant spending at most other spots. But Portland won just one MLS Cup, came close on the Shield just once and never came that close to a US Open Cup because they were never able to regularly develop fringe players into significant contributors. Until very recently they’ve only really looked for finished products, which hamstrung their flexibility and crushed their depth.

Contrast that to the Sounders, who’ve developed Homegrowns, draft picks, unheralded signings (Nouhou) or other team’s cast-offs (Joevin Jones, Shane O’Neill, Harry Shipp) into significant parts of the league’s most successful team.

The simple fact is in this league, almost every single signing will need some amount of development. Successful teams like Philly, NYCFC and LAFC have leaned into that even more than the Sounders, as have consistently good teams like Colorado, RBNY and – obviously – FC Dallas.

The other factor here is MLS is becoming a selling league, and while the Sounders haven’t truly jumped into that pool with both feet (yes, DeAndre Yedlin and Henry Wingo went from Homegrowns to Europe), the simple fact is teams that sell immediately become teams that must replace. A reliable developmental pathway makes it much, much easier to part with a core piece and just keep trucking.

Sub-Principle No 6: Be agnostic about where you find depth

Seattle would not be playing for a trophy tonight if not for Jackson Ragen, who was an academy product of theirs they’d actually passed on signing. Instead he was drafted by the Fire in 2021, and then acquired by the Sounders for a third-round pick this year when they realized they needed some more depth.

Academy kid Obed Vargas gave them massive minutes at d-mid back in the winter. He’s 16. If you're good enough, you're old enough.

They brought Fredy Montero, who’s in his mid-30s, back ahead of last year, and signed Rowe as a free agent. Leo Chu was a U22 Initiative signing. They got Stefan Cleveland via a trade, and the same for Jimmy Medranda.

Seattle are, I think, a little less interested in the draft and in young imports than some of the other good teams in MLS, so I don’t think they’re perfectly agnostic. But they are closer to it than most, and that openness to using any acquisition method at their disposal has been one of the reasons they’ve consistently come up with answers over the years, and it put them in a position to do groundbreaking things like sign the first DP free agent in Albert Rusnak. He wouldn’t have come to the Sounders if they were a team that didn’t have both a plan and flexibility with regard to how to operate within it.

That’s why they are where they are, on the verge of history. It’s been a long time coming, but the Sounders really are built to do it. And the thing is, even if they fail this year – and they might, the 2-2 aggregate makes this a winner-takes-all match – you know they’ll it won't be long until they're back again. The blueprint hasn’t failed them yet, so I don’t expect them to go away from it any time soon.