We learned three big things about the Seattle Sounders this year:
People took issue with the “to hang at this level” part of that tweet, and I get it (everyone loves to pick nits). I think if Mark could write it out again, he’d pick a different adjective phrase because Seattle very much did hang with LAFC in last weekend's Western Conference Semifinal.
What they didn’t do much of in their biggest games this year, however, was win. And that’s the overall point: Seattle played really organized and often very good soccer, which allowed them to become one of the best defensive teams of the past decade by both the boxscore and underlying numbers. That allowed them to survive Father Time catching up to both Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz, and to do so with some style, finishing second in the West and ranking among the league leaders in possession, passes per possession and field tilt.
For the bulk of Lodeiro’s time in MLS, Seattle being this good without him playing a central role was almost unthinkable. Back when they were going to either MLS Cup or deep in the Concacaf Champions League every year, our saying around the office when analyzing this team was “the system is Lodeiro.”
So Brian Schmetzer et al deserve a ton of credit for building a winning structure even as the greatest Sounder of them all bids Seattle adieu. Doing so not only means this team’s not going to go away – this year’s performance gives me confidence they will continue to be one of the better teams in the West – but it also gives the front office more fit-related flexibility when they go shopping this winter (i.e., don’t expect a like-for-like No. 10 replacement).
However… in the biggest moments, in the biggest games of the past half-decade, it was Lodeiro or Ruidíaz or both who stepped up, time and time again. They were the match-winners in those moments and were among the greatest match-winners in league history. They were the difference between merely hanging at that level and actually winning at that level.
None of the remaining attackers are quite there. Jordan Morris is very good, but not great (the difference between Morris and the league’s elite match-winners was apparent on the two breakaways that defined Sunday night’s 1-0 loss to LAFC). Roldan is one of the league’s indispensable floor-raisers, and I’d say that’s Albert Rusnák’s strength as well. Neither guy is a ceiling-raiser in the biggest games.
They’ve obviously got to go out and get one of those. That is the next step.
But I consider this season a success nonetheless because the hardest part – finding a workable post-Lodeiro game model – has been taken care of.
Formation & Tactics
Two years ago, when Lodeiro spent most of the year hurt, Schmetzer opted for a 3-5-2 with Roldan as a No. 10 who played more like a central winger, creating wide overloads and generating pullback after pullback for a pair of true forwards.
This year they came out from the start – which, you’ll recall, was in the Club World Cup way back in early February – operating out of what I’d call a positional play scheme. Their build-out shape was a 4-2-3-1 that morphed into a 3-2-2-3 in possession (usually it was right back Alex Roldan overlapping and left back Nouhou staying tucked in to make that back three), then toggled between a zonal high press and a 4-4-2 mid-block when necessary.
It was, as I mentioned above, really well-structured and organized. They generally did a great job of controlling both the tempo of the game and where on the field it was played, and obviously they limited chances as well as anyone in recent MLS history.
Just as obvious is that the attack wasn’t great. The biggest flaw (a common one for positional play teams) is that they were often too mechanical in the final third, and ended up settling for too many low-percentage crosses.
A 1-0 loss to Al Ahly a month before the season started in earnest – a game, by the way, that feels like it happened five years ago – doesn’t really jump off the page. And in terms of performance, Schmetzer and his staff can probably point to at least two dozen outings over the subsequent 10 months that were superior (including the 1-0 loss to LAFC).
But 1) the Sounders, despite being out of season, played the better soccer on the day, and more importantly 2) they became the first MLS team to kick a ball in anger at the Club World Cup.
Other MLS teams will scale that mountain soon, and other MLS teams will surely put in better performances and come away with wins and real celebrations. But on the way, they will pass the flag that the Sounders planted.
It remains a monumental achievement.
Over the next five months, as he missed all but four games due to recovering from the first concussion, then going to the Gold Cup with the USMNT, then sustaining another concussion, Seattle went 6W-11L-7D across all competitions.
Then he returned and they went 5W-2L-3D.
They have been warned.
I strongly considered putting Jackson Ragen into my Best XI. I thought he was better than his center back partner, Yeimar Gómez Andrade, because more of the heavy lifting with regard to distribution and moving the game around fell to Ragen.
Take it away, Jake & Taylor:
I knew, after last year, that he’d be a solid MLS starter. I didn’t think he’d be as good as he was this year.
Kid’s going to be a Rave Green cornerstone for a decade.
Léo Chú probably will not be. He certainly was given opportunities, but time and again in big moments he was put into spots where he was asked to beat a defender 1v1 and make a play, and time and again he was not able to make anything of it.
The more I watch him play the more convinced I am that he’s a wingback, not a winger.
Five Players to Build Around
- Ragen (CB): One of the best in the league.
- Yeimar (CB): One of the best in the league.
- João Paulo (DM): One of the best in the league.
- Cristian Roldan (W/AM/CM): As mentioned above, he’s irreplaceable.
- Alex Roldan (RB): One of the best attacking fullbacks in MLS.
There’s one move I think they’re guaranteed to make: Go out on the international market and spend on a new DP left-winger who can beat guys off the dribble and be a match-winner in the biggest moments – their own Dénis Bouanga. Now, Bouanga kind of seems like he’s too pricey, but remember that he only cost LAFC a reported $5 million. So there is talent out there that fits Seattle’s budget.
And that’s the big thing to understand here: the Sounders aren’t a nickel-and-dime team, but they very much have a budget. They’re likely not going to be spending eight figures on whoever they do bring in as their big, new signing, and they’re not going to move on from Rusnák for a higher-profile No. 10, and there’s likely no buyout of Ruidíaz coming, either. In fact, team sources have told me they expect the Peruvian to be back in 2024 for the final year of his contract.
So yeah, just one big addition. And then it’s a question of whether they can get more for Xavier Arreaga in the league (there are about 25 teams that could use a reliable, starting-caliber veteran CB) or abroad, and if there are sufficient offers for high-upside academy products like Reed Baker-Whiting, Obed Vargas and Josh Atencio.
Any of that could move the needle and allow them to go for broke by targeting MLS free agents or possible trades, but the No. 1 thing on the list – the thing that will determine whether Seattle are merely a solid playoff team or whether they’re legit trophy contenders – is whether they hit on the new DP.
Schmetzer’s done his part to prep for the post-Lodeiro era by adjusting the game model over the past year. Now it’s on GM Craig Waibel to do his part and find the guy who can make it work at the highest level.