TUKWILA, Wash. – For the Seattle Sounders, the first half of their 2019 season has produced a mixed bag.
On one hand, they’ve recorded a solid 8-5-5 record with 29 points, good for fourth place in the Western Conference standings, following a 3-0 road loss to NYCFC on Wednesday. All things considered, it’s a solid haul and a welcome sight for a franchise known for limping out of the gate in MLS over the last few seasons.
But the campaign also hasn’t been without its obstacles. After a torrid start that had them looking like Supporters’ Shield contenders, Seattle’s form has dipped, culminating with a 0-3-1 stretch during their four-game road trip from May 18 to June 5. While some of that can perhaps be explained away by a congested, travel-heavy portion of their schedule that saw Seattle playing without as many as nine departed internationals, head coach Brian Schmetzer still has some questions to ponder ahead of the second half of the season.
How do you replace a legend?
It’s a question Schmetzer has had to contend with a lot lately. Last season, it was Clint Dempsey, who retired midway through the 2018 campaign at age 35. This year, it’s Chad Marshall, who called it a career in May after being diagnosed with a degenerative knee condition. Factor in the offseason departure of beloved midfielder Osvaldo Alonso – who signed with Minnesota United in free agency after an illustrious 10-season run in Rave Green – and that’s a lot of star power to take off any roster in a one-year span.
In the case of Marshall, it goes without saying that the Sounders have a substantial void to fill. The center back was the definition of the linchpin. He has a solid argument as the best defender to ever play in MLS. When it comes to replacing a presence like that, there are never any easy answers.
If the Sounders do have an answer, it will have to be Xavier Arreaga, their newly signed center back who joined the club on a Designated Player contract from Barcelona SC of his native Ecuador just weeks before Marshall retired. The 24-year-old was an emerging star in the Ecuadorian Serie A before making the jump to MLS, and was the team captain for Barcelona SC – a significant detail when factoring in the leadership void left by Marshall’s departure.
“The times we saw him play live between our group scouts, he was consistent,” Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson said. “He showed leadership for a player who’s pretty young.
“There were a few moments where I could tell his teammates look up to him. He was playing, at the time, as a captain with other internationals that were older veteran players and they seemed to be looking at him for leadership.”
Arreaga has only played 142 MLS minutes so far, to mixed results. While he displayed some of the technical ability and calmness on the ball that made him a standout in Ecuador, he was also was tagged with an unfortunate own goal in a 2-1 loss to FC Dallas on June 1 and dished several wayward passes.
For now, that can be attributed to an expected adjustment period when learning a new league and a new team. But with Marshall hanging up the boots, the Sounders no longer have the luxury of easing Arreaga into action. They need him to become their new backline stalwart right away.
Can Jordan Morris stay healthy?
Making his return after missing all of 2018 with a torn ACL, Jordan Morris got his season off to a roaring start, bagging three goals and an assist in his first three games, including a laser golazo with his oft-maligned left foot in Seattle’s opener against FC Cincinnati. During that stretch, the Sounders looked like a dominant attacking team, and Morris was integral alongside Raul Ruidiaz, Nicolas Lodeiro and Victor Rodriguez.
Since then, it’s been tougher sledding for the 24-year-old Homegrown Player. He netted just once more across his next nine games before going down with a strained hamstring against Orlando City on May 15. Morris hasn’t played in an MLS match since, but he has been involved with the US men’s national team at the Concacaf Gold Cup.
“That’s got to help Jordan’s confidence,” Schmetzer said. “ When he comes back to us, that’ll be a boost.”
It was also a good reminder of what Morris can be at his best: a game-changing attacker with blistering speed and a relentless engine that can put opposing defenders on their heels. His critics will point out he still has yet to prove he’s a truly elite finisher, and while they’re not necessarily wrong, Morris won the league’s Rookie of the Year award and an MLS Cup in 2016 – the only time he’s made it through a full season completely healthy. If this year’s Sounders are to reach their ceiling, a healthy and productive Jordan Morris needs to be a big part of it.
What does the future hold for Brad Smith?
Since joining the Sounders on loan from EPL side AFC. Bournemouth last August, Brad Smith has been as dynamic as advertised. The Australian left back has proven to be an invaluable cog in this attack, with a willingness to get forward and pick out pinpoint crosses that has led to five assists in 15 games so far this season.
At the moment, however, Smith’s Cascadia future is up in the air. Bournemouth has the right to recall him before July 31, and given his MLS form, it’s entirely possible they choose to do so.
“It’s up to Bournemouth,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey told MLSsoccer.com recently. “They have until July 31. Anytime between now and then, they can make whatever decision they want. We’re just waiting for them.”
For his part, Smith has made clear he’d prefer to stay in Seattle.
“Everyone’s anxious, I am as well, because I’d like to stay here,” he told reporters last week. “I’m really enjoying my time out here. Hopefully, [I’ll stay]. Time will tell.”
If Smith does depart, the Sounders need backup Nouhou Tolo to take the next step in his development. The 22-year-old Cameroonian is one of the best defenders on the team, but Seattle’s system demands the fullbacks get forward and wreak havoc. Nouhou has just two assists in 3,410 career MLS minutes.
With that in mind, Smith’s exit could mean starting left back minutes may actually fall to Joevin Jones, who rejoined the Sounders in May after a year and a half with SV Darmstadt 98 of the 2. Bundesliga. During the 2017 season in Seattle, Jones was one of the best left backs in MLS, racking up 13 assists across 35 games spanning the regular season and playoffs. It’s certainly not a bad insurance policy on paper, but Jones hasn’t been playing much left back lately, spending most of his time with Darmstadt and the Trinidad and Tobago national team on the wing. If Smith goes, can Jones immediately slide back in and regain that 2017 form at the drop of a hat?
Like a lot of things with the Sounders these days, it’s an open question.