C’mon man, they won the Concacaf Champions League. I’m not taking any shots at them here.
A GIF is worth a thousand words…
This modern iteration of the CCL was MLS’s Mount Everest, and it felt appropriate Seattle – the most consistent and successful team in the league since they entered it in 2009 – were the first ones to the top. The fact they won the tournament without losing a single game, with an absurd +13 goal differential, and with a commanding 3-0 home win over Pumas UNAM in front of nearly 70,000 Rave Green fanatics to finish off a legendary run… you couldn’t ask for a more fitting capstone for what this group has accomplished.
And then yeah, the regular season made it feel like kind of a capstone, right? We know how much a deep CCL run takes out of most teams, and as deep and great as the Sounders were, they weren’t spared that bit of ignominy.
But I don’t really care. When I think of Nico Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, Stef Frei et al, I’m not going to think about that one time they missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time (and for the record: It will be only one time). I’m going to think about them winning the CCL and going to the FIFA Club World Cup.
Formation and Tactics
Last year Brian Schmetzer had to do all kinds of cool things, the best of which was playing a 3-4-1-2 with Cristian Roldan as a kind of central winger instead of a pure No. 10, constantly creating right-side overloads, transition and penetration.
This year, with Lodeiro back, it was back to the 4-2-3-1 with the main tactical approach of “get Nico on the ball a thousand times a game and let him cook.”
There’s more to it than that, of course. Seattle bring both fullbacks forward all the time and try to hammer away at the primary assist zones on the side of the 18, always looking for the types of pullbacks that lead to one-touch finishes. But almost the entire process of getting into those spots runs through Lodeiro.
He works harder off the ball than anybody in the league – as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data he leads the league in both distance covered per 90 and distance running at high speed per 90. Does it matter his top sustained speed is only in the 13th percentile? Not really, because when you’re basically always running at that speed, you get around the pitch pretty well!
Did I mention they won the Concacaf Champions League?
HIGHLIGHTS: Seattle Sounders vs. Pumas UNAM | May 4, 2022
Lest Lodeiro, Ruidiaz, Roldan, Jordan Morris and Joao Paulo get all the love, let us also recall the show Frei put on in the second leg of Seattle’s semifinal win over NYCFC:
Stefan Frei says NO! Seattle goalkeeper stuns NYCFC with 7 saves in CCL
All these guys should drink for free in Seattle forever.
I think if there’s one loss you could point to where it was like, “Uh oh, it’s not happening for these guys this year. They can’t find the gas pedal,” it was the 2-1 home loss to Real Salt Lake on August 14. Seattle had controlled the first half hour, generated chance after chance, and couldn’t find the back of the net.
Then they let up for a split second and this happened:
That loss was the second in a five-game winless skid that knocked the Sounders down to the bottom of the well, and they never quite climbed back out.
HOWEVER, we all know the real lowlight came when Joao Paulo tore his ACL 29 minutes into that great win over Pumas, and then when young homegrown Obed Vargas saw his season end six weeks later.
The first thing those two injuries did was lower Seattle’s ceiling – they were never going to be as dominant without those guys in the regular season as they’d been with them in the CCL – and the second thing it did was lower the Sounders’ floor. Suddenly a team that never lost games in central midfield was swimming against the tide, and eventually they couldn’t keep their heads above water.
Vargas, as a 16-year-old (he turned 17 in August), played nearly 1,300 minutes from February to mid-June before having his season cut short with a back fracture. Three-hundred seventy-eight of those minutes came in CCL play, including the final 61 of that win over Pumas as JP’s replacement.
I’m not sure d-mid is the hardest position in the game anymore (I think over the past decade that’s become center back), but it’s still top three and is still a position dominated by veterans. There’s a reason Seattle’s d-mid succession has gone from Ozzie Alonso (the best d-mid in MLS history) to Gustav Svensson (a full Swedish international in his prime) to JP (a DP and my 2021 MVP runner-up). Winning teams rarely take a chance on kids there because even high-upside kids like Vargas’s fellow homegrowns Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio regularly get their naivete exposed when they play big minutes at the 6.
Vargas, though, didn’t. He was so good that for a month-and-a-half it looked like the Sounders had lost their DP No. 6, replaced him with a 16-year-old and suffered virtually no drop-off.
To be clear: Neither Leyva nor Atencio, both of whom got significant minutes over the final month of the season with JP and Vargas out, were bad. They had down moments for sure, but each also showed why they’re so highly regarded in the first place.
The bigger disappointment was there was just no replacing Ruidiaz, who’s managed only 1,306 regular-season minutes this year.
In those ~1300 minutes Seattle were a not-great 8W-9L-1D with 30 goals scored and a +3 goal differential. In the other 1,700ish minutes, the Sounders were a disastrous 4W-8L-3D with just 15 goals scored and a -2 goal differential.
For years I assumed Lodeiro was irreplaceable, but they did fine without him last year. Then I assumed it was JP, but then Vargas filled in just fine.
It turns out, all along, Ruidiaz was the guy they couldn’t live without.
Five Players to Build Around
- Lodeiro (AM): He’ll be 34 at the start of next season, but given his IQ, fitness and engine, it’s not crazy to think he’s got one more elite year left.
- Ruidiaz (FW): He’s under contract until 2024, and when he was fit this year, he was his usual reliable self. It is time, however, to find or develop a young backup to soak up minutes.
- Albert Rusnak (CM/AM): I could’ve listed Rusnak’s ability to play as a No. 8 as a revelation – one that was key to the CCL win. He’ll be back next year, most likely in that role, and with an eye on a long-term role as Lodeiro’s heir.
- Roldan (RW/CM): Was arguably the CCL MVP, leading the tournament in assists from the right wing. But obviously he can fill in just about anywhere.
- Morris (LW/FW): His boxscore numbers were down (7g/4a), but both the eye test and the tracking data say he’s still the same elite athletic presence. He just suffered from a lack of Ruidiaz to play off of.
They need to catch a breather, get everyone fit and get a succession plan at a couple of spots (center forward, as mentioned, being the most important). If they do that, they’ll be in good shape, and thus I don’t think there’ll be any truly major, gigantic roster moves.
That said, the Sounders badly need an attacking LB who can play the final ball. Nouhou was spectacular last year playing as a LCB in that 3-4-1-2, but his inability to add value in attack as an overlapping fullback crushed Seattle in 2022. If there’s one spot I’d expect them to target for an upgrade this offseason, it’s LB.
You noticed I wrote “them” and not “Garth Lagerwey, right? Well, that’s because this is the last year of Lagerwey’s contract, and there’ve been no reports he’s signed a new one. With Atlanta and possibly Chicago (Lagerwey’s a Chicagoland native) staring at a front-office makeover, Lagerwey’s pending free agency could be the most consequential in MLS history.