The 2021 MLS regular season has long been over and the unforgiving nature of single-elimination playoffs has sent more and more clubs officially to the offseason, joining 13 clubs that missed the playoffs.
Here, we'll cover three questions for every team as the offseason begins in earnest. With most clubs already announcing their roster decisions, the depth charts will look lighter than the first crop of 13. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
Dealing with key injuries and absences all season long, the Seattle Sounders somehow still remained around the top of the Western Conference from opening day through Decision Day. It looked like they might be getting back to full health for the playoffs, a scary proposition considering they had 60 points despite never quite being full-strength. It always felt they had another lever to pull, another gear to hit.
But it didn't happen. Raul Ruidiaz, Nico Lodeiro and Alex Roldan all started on the bench for their Round One playoff game against Real Salt Lake and, 120 minutes plus penalties later, Seattle exited the playoffs in a game where the opposition registered exactly zero shots on goal. The fickle nature of single-elimination soccer can be cruel.
There are several micro questions to be asked (which specific players currently out of contract will be back? What will that cap situation look like? etc.) but there are three big, macro questions to look at as well.
The Sounders picked up the 2022 contract option on star forward Raul Ruidiaz, but there's been a bunch of smoke about his future.
Ruidiaz is reportedly looking for a new contract and isn't entirely happy one hasn't arrived yet. The Peru international has plenty of suitors in Liga MX, where he was the Golden Boot winner before coming to Seattle. Reports have linked him with Cruz Azul, Club America and his former club Morelia (per Niko Moreno). Those teams have the funds to make Seattle listen to a transfer offer and give Ruidiaz a lucrative new deal. Nick Negrini reports there has been a breakdown in those extension talks.
That's not great news.
GM and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey said the goal remains for Seattle to sign him to a contract extension.
“We’ll work together to try to get a good resolution for everybody,” Lagerwey told media after the season. “Worst-case is he’s under contract for next year and if we have to solve something for 2023, we will. But our preference is to try to work out a deal. We want to keep him here with the Sounders long-term.”
Keep an eye on this one.
Ruidiaz, 31, was named MLS Best XI this year with 17 goals in 26 appearances (24 starts), helping carry the Sounders in the beginning and middle parts of the season with so many familiar faces out injured. Ruidiaz picked up an injury of his own down the stretch and was unable to start the club's lone playoff match, though did appear off the bench.
The Peruvian forward has 50 goals and nine assists in 79 regular-season appearances, as well as nine goals and six assists in 11 playoff appearances since arriving in 2018. He's been a bonafide star since day one, a consistent scoring presence for the Sounders.
Ruidiaz isn't the only DP with a question mark. What will Nico Lodeiro look like in 2022?
The industrious attacking midfielder turns 33 at the beginning of next season and was limited to just 459 minutes this year. A knee issue that started in preseason bugged him all year long, costing him the first few months of Seattle's campaign and then the final few months after needing arthroscopy surgery to correct it in September. He returned to the bench for their playoff loss to RSL.
Lodeiro has 33 goals and 59 assists in 130 regular-season appearances with the Sounders, where he is a club legend. He's been integral to each of those four runs to MLS Cup and the heartbeat of this team for half a decade.
Best-case scenario? It was just a frustrating anomaly, a confluence of bad luck and bad timing, and he returns to his Best XI-caliber exploits next year. But if more injuries linger, Seattle will have a big problem, unless highly-rated U22 Initiative signing Leo Chu is able to shoulder a bigger attacking burden.
For essentially his entire time as Seattle head coach, Brian Schmetzer rolled out a 4-2-3-1 to maximize the talent at hand. It worked and it worked well, with the club making MLS Cup four times (!) in five years.
This year, there were a bunch of question marks and some changes that necessitated a switch of system. Seattle went with a 3-4-2-1, which was at times a 3-4-1-2 or some variation in the attack. But, again, it maximized the talent at hand.
Nouhou thrived as a left-sided central defender in a back three, while Alex Roldan became an All-Star and key El Salvador international as a wingback. Ruidiaz was Ruidiaz up top, and Cristian Roldan was excellent whether as a No. 10 or his more natural box-to-box role.
Again: Schmetzer went with a system to maximize the group at hand. That's a fantastically underrated quality for a head coach. So, now with the roster in flux at the beginning of the offseason, what will the plan be?
Jordan Morris is back and fit. He was a Best XI-caliber winger in MLS, but can also play as a second forward in this system. Leo Chu is a promising young winger but made his first MLS minutes in this system.
Joao Paulo, Ruidiaz and Lodeiro can play in either setup. What system Schmetzer opts for is likely to depend on what other signings (or re-signings) happen around the current 19 players under contract.
Alex Roldan is in negotiations with the club, as are a number of others. Kelyn Rowe, Shane O'Neill, Will Bruin and Fredy Montero are all currently out of contract as well.
- Seattle are in discussions with "a number of" players whose options were declined, but didn't specify who.
- So I made my best guesses, with Bruin, Rowe, O'Neill and one of the backup goalkeepers.
- Will Reed Baker-Whiting take a step forward next year to earn minutes like Josh Atencio did this year?
- If it's a 3-4-2-1, how effectively can natural wingers Chu and Morris play together?