Aren’t these guys supposed to be second-tier by now? As Major League Soccer fills itself with flashier names, larger crowds, and wealthier investors, the Seattle Sounders — those big fish of the aughts and early teens who splurged on designated players, a scouting department, and the occasional charter flight when few others did — were supposed to have slipped a rung.
Deep-pocketed clubs in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Toronto, and New York allegedly left the Sounders behind. It is, after all, a brave new league boasting a Carlos Vela, a Chicharito, a Home Depot billionaire.
Someone forgot to tell the Sounders. They have qualified for the playoffs in each of their 11 MLS seasons, and they have reached three of the last four league finals. They keep hitting home runs with their designated players, they keep smartly spending targeted allocation money, and they now have a pair of MLS Cup trophies to show for it.
After winning their second MLS Cup in four seasons in 2019, the Sounders enter 2020 deploying fresh faces in key places for the first time in years, but have yet again positioned themselves to contend for multiple trophies. The pursuit of a CONCACAF Champions League title – at least as important to the Sounders as winning another MLS Cup — begins Thursday night against CD Olimpia in Honduras.
“It’s something we as a franchise, as an organization, certainly covet,” head coach Brian Schmetzer said from Honduras on Tuesday.
Having started the previous three campaigns in abysmal form, the Sounders finally raced out of the gate last season, posting five wins and a draw from their first six matches. An 11-10-7 record followed for the rest of the campaign, a middling account partially explained by international duties and a rash of injuries — including the forced retirement of all-league defender Chad Marshall due to a degenerative knee condition.
A strong close to the regular season nevertheless propelled the Sounders into a second-place finish in the conference and to the second league title in club history. Facing Toronto FC in MLS Cup for the third time in four campaigns, the Sounders cruised past their Eastern Conference rivals — who were missing Jozy Altidore, to be fair — by a 3-1 score.
But gone from the roster that started that championship season are not only Marshall, but creative midfielder (and MLS Cup MVP) Victor Rodriguez, left back Brad Smith, centerbacks Roman Torres and Kim Kee Hee, and backup fullback Saad Abdul-Salaam.
That is a lot of departing talent for a team that only lost one key player after each of the last two seasons (Joevin Jones after 2017 and Osvaldo Alonso after 2018).
Sounders’ general manager and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey – inarguably the shrewdest roster builder in the league — has thus far made two major signings to address all those offseason departures.
Joao Paolo, signed on Jan. 31, fills the Sounders’ third designated player slot. The Brazilian playmaker joins the club from Botafogo in Brazil’s top flight and figures to slot in alongside rugged veteran Gustav Svensson as a defensive midfielder in head coach Brian Schmetzer’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
Yeimar Gomez Andrade, signed with TAM on Feb. 5 from Argentina’s top division, should provide an athletic, aggressive center back partner for Xavier Arreaga.
It also doesn’t hurt that some of the offseason losses come at positions where the Sounders enjoyed a surfeit of talent. Brad Smith is gone, yes, but a left-back cupboard featuring Joevin Jones and Nouhou isn’t exactly bare, either.
For the second straight year, the Sounders are looking to fill out the bottom of the roster with young prospects from an increasingly promising youth pipeline. The club has identified three as-yet-unnamed youngsters it would potentially like to sign in the coming weeks.
So while there are some new faces in town, 2020 promises more of the same-old, same-old for the Seattle Sounders: a stacked roster ready to hunt trophies.
Here’s a closer look at the Seattle Sounders heading into 2020.
2020 Seattle Sounders Preview
2019 FINISH: 16-10-8 (Second place in Western Conference, MLS Cup champion)
KEY LOSSES: Victor Rodriguez, Brad Smith, Roman Torres, Kim Kee Hee, Saad Abdul-Salaam
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Joao Paulo, Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Miguel Ibarra
Newcomer to Watch
Garth Lagerwey prefers to make a splash in the summer transfer window. He likes the larger market. He likes only having to pay a prorated portion of a new player’s salary. He likes having four or five months to study his team and identify its needs. But the Sounders are serious about winning Champions League. And so Lagerwey signed Paulo on the last day of January.
“We really are motivated to go for it in Champions League,” Lagerwey said after signing Paulo. “We’ve been saying that. And so to have a full DP [complement] from day one…that’s a statement of intent on our part, that we mean what we say.”
Paulo is a 28-year-old jack-of-all-trades central midfielder with 17 Copa Libertadores appearances to his name. He’s capable of serving as a defensive midfielder, a box-to-box workhorse, or a classic No. 10. The Sounders figure to start him in the double-pivot in front of the back line, with ample freedom to pursue the game.
Paulo may have signed with the Sounders less than three weeks ago, but Jordan Morris likes what he sees already.
“Joao’s a really good player,” Morris told SBI on Monday from Mexico City, where the Sounders trained for nearly two weeks before heading to Honduras. “[He’s] really clean technically, and is a guy that I think is going to help us out a lot. We played a scrimmage back in Seattle, and he was finding some really good, long, switching balls. He definitely has that eye, where he can play some longer passes to open teams up.”
For his part, Schmetzer could hardly conceal his excitement when asked how Paulo has looked in the last couple of weeks.
“I don’t want to put any added pressure on Joao Paulo,” Schmetzer said with a laugh, “but I think he’s gonna be great. I didn’t want to do that, but I get a smile on my face when I watch him play.”
Pressure is On
Given that the Sounders are competing in league play, CONCACAF Champions League, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and Campeones Cup, the club could play as many as 10 more matches in 2020 than it did in 2019. There will be more three-game weeks. Substitutes will inevitably start important matches. Alex Roldan — relatively untested at the MLS level at his natural midfield spots to begin with — is second on the depth chart at a new position. It is likely that at some point this season he will find himself on an island and facing a richly-pedigreed attacking player with a critical match on the line. That’s the definition of pressure. His coach believes he is up for it.
“Alex has done well,” Schmetzer said on Tuesday. “He’s earned that chance of being that backup right back. That’s been a little bit of a revolving door, with [Jordan] McCrary, and then Saad Abdul-Salaam, and now Alex. We’re trying to find, perhaps, a more permanent solution.”
“Alex came in,” Schmetzer continued, “and did what he needed to do in order for us to feel comfortable in signing him. And then, I think Alex’s strength [is that] he’s got a little bit of that Roldan family mentality. I think he understands that he didn’t quite break through in the position that he was at over the last couple of years, playing up a line. There’s something to be said about a kid who is versatile, but I think Alex wanted to have a more set position. We gave him the opportunity. He did a lot of work with [assistant coach] Djimi Traore learning about the nuances of the position. He’s done well, and I don’t have any fear of playing him in games.”
There’s no reason to think the Sounders can’t once again compete for MLS Cup and at least make a deep run in CONCACAF Champions League.
They are certainly set at goalkeeper, where Stefan Frei is among the league’s elite.
Along the back line, Kelvin Leerdam, 29, returns at right fullback and should continue to provide the stability he has offered since joining in the club midseason in 2017. After scoring just one goal with the Sounders before last year, Leerdam found the back of the net five times in the 2019 regular season. He also bagged the opening goal of the 2019 MLS Cup. Depth at right back is perhaps the club’s biggest question mark.
At left back, Cameroonian speedster Nouhou, 22, looks to have at least temporarily edged out Joevin Jones for the starting spot. Jones was arguably the best left back in the league before departing for the 2. Bundesliga following the 2017 season. He looked less impressive after returning to the Sounders in May of 2019, but should provide valuable depth at left back and both winger spots.
Centerback is the most revised position on the roster. Gone are Kim Kee Hee, Roman Torres, and Chad Marshall. Xavier Arreaga returns for his first full season with the Sounders. He is joined by the freshly inked Gomez Andrade to form a new-look center back pairing. Arreaga impressed in a limited showing last season, while early reviews of Gomez Andrade, a six foot two inch, 27-year-old Colombian, are promising.
“He’s a really strong, athletic guy,” said Morris. “And I think he’s a ball-winner, is what we’ve seen. He’s a guy that gets into tackles and wins balls, and I think he’s gonna be good for us. It’s always great to have new players with good quality.”
“I think,” said Schmetzer on Tuesday, “the pairing of Yeimar and Javy, I think that’s going to work very well.”
Schmetzer was particularly effusive when discussing Gomez Andrade’s aggressiveness and attitude.
“He’s a very physically gifted athlete,” Schmetzer said. “He’s extremely fast. He is good in the air. He’s not Chad-Marshall-good-in-the-air, but he’s certainly very, very good in the air. And what I like about him is he’s aggressive. We need to have at least one big, strong, aggressive center back.”
Sounders’ fans who have missed Osvaldo Alonso’s steel in the heart of the pitch might appreciate what Schmetzer seems to enjoy most about Gomez Andrade thus far.
“I love watching him play,” Schmetzer said. “I think you will see with your own eyes. There’s a couple times when he comes into challenges that I almost have to turn away, because I think someone’s gonna get hurt, and it’s not Yeimar. But he’s been very good.”
In front of the back line, the ever reliable Gustav Svensson will pair with newcomer Paulo in what should be one of the better defensive midfield tandems in MLS.
Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro, and Cristian Roldan round out a seemingly perpetually loaded midfield. After returning from Gold Cup duties, Morris played arguably the best soccer of his career down the stretch in 2019, delivering six goals and six assists over the final 15 games of the regular season, before — why not? — adding four goals and an assist in four playoff matches. Asked how he might improve in 2020, Morris was typically humble.
“Last year,” he told SBI, “I thought there were opportunities where I could have been cleaner and done better, you know? So it’s just continuing to try and learn and grow. It’ll be my second full season as a winger, so it’s just about trying to get better at that position and continuing to work on my crossing in the final third and finishing when I get my chances. Those are always two big ones for me.”
Lodeiro underwent an apparently minor procedure in Uruguay in January to address knee tendinitis that had been bothering him since last season. For now, at least, the team is downplaying its severity. It’s not clear the 30-year-old Uruguayan will be ready to take the field on Thursday night against CD Olimpia, but it doesn’t sound as if he is far away.
“He’s been getting very close,” Schmetzer said on Tuesday. “He’s been training well. Obviously, he’s arguably one of our best players, so the minute he’s ready to step in, we’ll get him in the game.”
Harry Shipp, Danny Leyva, and Joevin Jones should provide depth in attacking midfield. Miguel Ibarra, a longtime Minnesota United attacking midfielder and winger, has been trialing with the Sounders and could pencil in as a late substitute and spot starter.
Raul Ruidiaz returns as a designated player atop the Sounders’ formation, providing some of the most efficient scoring in league history. Will Bruin continues to rehab from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but should eventually provide valuable late minutes and occasional starts.
Goalkeepers: Stefan Cleveland, Stefan Frei, Trey Muse.
Defenders: Xavier Arreaga, Yeimar Gomez, Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam, Shane O’Neill, Nouhou Tolo.
Midfielders: Alex Roldan, Handwalla Bwana, Jordy Delem, Miguel Ibarra, Danny Leyva, Nicolás Lodeiro, Joao Paulo, Cristian Roldan, Harry Shipp, Gustav Svensson.
Forwards: Will Bruin, Justin Dhillon, Jordan Morris, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez and Raúl Ruidíaz