The Seattle Sounders came up just 90 minutes short in 2020, losing to the Columbus Crew in MLS Cup. It’s a thorny thing in any year, finishing second best. The season ends in heartbreak, yet you’re the envy of every team but one. Hard to know how much to celebrate reaching the final, how much to rue that final failure.
Maybe it’s easier to know when you get run off the pitch. The Sounders all but forgot to show up for the big match, falling 3-0 to Caleb Porter’s men. It was a laugher, a game that felt like a coronation from the opening moments.
Yet if ever the world offered a team a valid excuse for not getting the job done, then last year provided it. Easy enough to be thankful for good health, chalk up a bad loss to “2020,” and move on.
Cristian Roldan is not hearing that.
“Within our organization,” Roldan told SBI, “Within our fans, within our locker room, maybe certain players, maybe certain fans, saw it as a positive, you know, reaching the final after such a tough year off the field. But for me specifically, I have a bitter taste in my mouth.”
Neither is Shane O’Neill. The Sounders accomplished much last season. They finished second in the Western Conference. At times they dominated, opening an abbreviated regular season by beating the Portland Timbers and Los Angeles FC by a combined score of 6-1. They posted a 7-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes that set piles of records. The LA Galaxy and Vancouver Whitecaps went down 3-1 within a week of each other. And the Sounders reached MLS Cup for the fourth time in five years.
Yet asked to reflect on the season, O’Neill zeroed in on the final to the exclusion of all else.
“Just the final — that’s the overwhelming reminder of that season,” O’Neill said on Friday. “I think it was a huge learning experience for me, personally. Obviously, you just want to end it the right the way and chase trophies as much as we can this season. But yeah, obviously looking back on last season, it just didn’t end the way we wanted it to end here. Obviously, you kind of sit back and think about that game in Columbus. There’s definitely some bitterness there.”
Chasing trophies is old hat for this organization. A lot of other things will be different this year.
Gone for the season is Jordan Morris, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament while on loan with Swansea City in February. It’s the second torn ACL in four years for the 26-year-old winger; a devastating blow both on and off the pitch. The loan was supposed to end in June, at which point Morris would have either returned to Seattle (although he would have spent significant chunks of the summer on international duty) or earned the Sounders a windfall of at least $7 million if Swansea exercised its option to buy.
The injury compelled head coach Brian Schmetzer to do the unthinkable this spring: abandon the 4-2-3-1 formation that has defined his tenure. Eyeballing a roster devoid of wingers but boasting three starting caliber forwards and a pair of speedy fullbacks who can run for days, Schmetzer seems sure to deploy a 3-5-2 in Friday’s season opening match against Minnesota United.
“I don’t think I would have thought that we would have changed,” said Roldan, “just because of how the past five years have gone. But good coaches find ways to make their team better.”
Gone too are Gustav Svensson, Kelvin Leerdam, Joevin Jones, and even Harry Shipp, who retired before the MLS is Back tournament. That’s a lot of experience and a lot of talent. All but maxed out of salary-cap space, the Sounders haven’t replaced any of them.
Thus far Garth Lagerwey, general manager and president of soccer, has only countered those losses with two signings. Kelyn Rowe, 29, joins the Sounders from the New England Revolution looking to right his career. Club legend Fredy Montero, 33 but boyish yet, returns at forward after an eight-year absence. Both figure to be called upon in a summer that should be rife with international absences. Montero has generated enough excitement in preseason that he might press for a starting position sooner rather than later.
Long one of the league’s most veteran-laden teams, the Sounders are finally going to play some kids. Teenagers already on the roster include midfielders Josh Atencio, Ethan Dobbelaere, Shandon Hopeau, and Danny Leyva, as well as forward Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez. Young players fighting for the last remaining roster spots include Reed Baker-Whiting, Juan Alvarez, Sota Kitahara, Cody Baker, Taka Sasaki, and Abdoulaye Cissoko.
A youth movement, the loss of a star winger, and a new formation all complicate the Sounders’ hunt for trophies in 2021. But at their core, the Sounders still have two of the best attacking players in MLS in Raul Ruidiaz and team captain Nicolas Lodeiro. Designated player Joao Paulo, U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Cristian Roldan, centerback Yeimar Gomez Andrade, and goalkeeper Stefan Frei round out a formidable spine.
“Nico and Raul, in particular, are really special players,” Lagerwey said earlier this year. “They’re top 10 players in MLS. They just don’t come around every day. We need to take advantage of their primes as best as we possibly can and continue to field really competitive teams. Because as long as we have those guys, as long as we have that core of six guys, and a bunch of good supporting guys, we’re going to contend every single year.”
Here is a closer look at the 2021 Seattle Sounders:
2021 Seattle Sounders Season Preview
2019 FINISH: 11-5-6, 39 points (second place in the Western Conference, MLS Cup runner-up)
KEY LOSSES: Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam, Jordan Morris (out for season with torn ACL), Harry Shipp, Gustav Svensson
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Kelyn Rowe, Fredy Montero
Newcomer to Watch: Kelyn Rowe
It’s a cliche and also a fact: it’s bit of a homecoming for the 29-year-old Rowe. He was born and raised in Federal Way, Washington, just outside Seattle. He’s also a player the Sounders considered drafting when he came out of UCLA in 2012. The New England Revolution nabbed him with the third pick in that year’s draft, but the Sounders have kept tabs on him ever since.
“It was a big factor, to be able to come home and play in front of my family and my friends, where I grew up,” Rowe said after the signing. “It’s been kind of a long time coming. I’ve wanted to play here for a long time. It helps that I get to come home and play for one of the best teams in the league. Not everyone can say that when they go play for their hometown club.”
A highly touted prospect, Rowe justified the hype early in his career. He averaged roughly 30 appearances a year over his first seven seasons. He also put up respectable numbers for a young midfielder, averaging more than five goals and five assists over his first five campaigns.
It’s been a quiet few years since, though. Spending time with Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, and the Revs, Rowe has made just 34 combined appearances over the last three seasons. He’s recorded no goals and just one assist over that stretch — although to be fair he has been deployed less and less as a strictly attacking midfielder in recent years.
Not quite a reclamation project, it’s a low-risk, high-reward move for the Sounders. It’s also a signing that calls to mind Harry Shipp, a creative midfielder whose career perhaps never quite matched its early promise, but who played a vital role on a championship side before retiring at 29 last season. It will be interesting to see if playing alongside the likes of Lodeiro, Ruidiaz, and Joao Paulo rejuvenates Rowe’s career. Schmetzer has also suggested that Rowe could provide competition at right wing back.
The Pressure is On: Alex Roldan
A midfielder who struggled to break through in 2019, a promising fullback in 2020, a wing back on the hot seat in 2021. Alex Roldan’s years contain careers.
He started just three regular-season matches last year. Which is to say Roldan had only started at fullback three times in his life when the 2020 playoffs began. Yet Brian Schmetzer and his staff trusted him enough to start all four playoff matches, including an MLS Cup final on the road when longtime starter Kelvin Leerdam was healthy.
Leerdam is no longer with the Sounders (gone to Inter Miami as a free agent), and wing back should come pretty naturally to a fullback who converted from the midfield. His older brother, who recommended Alex switch to fullback last season, certainly thinks so.
“This solution suits him tremendously,” Cristian Roldan told SBI, “because he can get up on the ball a little bit at a higher position than a normal right back, and a little bit lower position than a winger. And I think that’s the position where he can contribute. He gets the ball and can serve a really good early cross. I think that’s the position that can really elevate and change his game.”
But listen to his coach, and it’s clear Roldan’s hold on the position is open to both immediate competition from within and eventual threat from without.
“We might put Kelyn Rowe back there, see what he looks like back there,” Schmetzer said in early March. “Certainly that’s [an] open spot. There’s competition there. If things don’t go well, that’s a possible upgrade. But I have confidence in Alex. We’ll see what Kelyn does.”
Lagerwey sounded a similar note when touching on the position early in the offseason.
“We want to see how Josh Atencio does,” Lagerwey said, “how Danny Leyva does. If one of them pops in preseason we can push Cristian Roldan out to the right wing. If Ethan Dobbelaere pops in preseason, maybe he’s your starting right winger.”
Asked for an update on Friday, Schmetzer continued to call Roldan a “work in progress” while complimenting his ability to cross the ball.
Will Roldan prove merely serviceable, or look as good at wing back this season as he did at fullback last season? The answer just might say a good deal about how far the Sounders go in 2021.
The Sounders have been considered perennial MLS Cup favorites for at least half a decade. It might be time for supporters to lower their expectations a touch.
Not to suggest the Sounders won’t be a good team. The spine alone will win you some MLS soccer matches. More than some.
At 34, Frei will start in goal. He showed few signs of slowing down last season, allowing just 23 goals in 22 starts during the shortened regular season. He enters his eighth season with the Sounders still elite, still capable of delivering saves that keep the Sounders in games when they’re being outplayed.
“It’s a real pleasure playing with Stef,” said O’Neill. “There’s no doubt about it. Sometimes I just watch him in training. I think there’s a lot of things. I think how dialed in he is during the games. How focused he is on little movements. And his communication, it’s just really elite, honestly. And then obviously the fact that he’s gonna bail you out once or twice in a game with huge saves. That’s what you ask for in a big-time keeper. We’re obviously really lucky that he’s on our side.”
Nouhou, Gomez Andrade, and Xavier Arreaga figure to anchor the Sounders’ reconfigured back line. Gomez Andrade has established himself as an elite MLS center back. Nouhou makes the transition from left back to center back. As a fullback he struggled to develop his attacking skills, and just might blossom now that he’s freed from those responsibilities. After a roller-coaster 2020, Arreaga probably has to prove his reliability to Schmetzer. A costly mistake or two early on and veteran Shane O’Neill snags his spot.
“I’m hoping that things have settled, and that he can find some consistency in his form,” said Schmetzer.
Brad Smith and Alex Roldan should start at wing back. Smith, 26, was a key member of the Sounders’ 2019 championship side, providing speed and attacking flair down the left flank. He returned to the Sounders late last season after his contract with English League Championship side A.F.C. Bournemouth ended. He battled injuries and struggled to get involved down the stretch in 2020, but could prove a potent attacking force at wing back, especially with Nouhou’s ability to cover space in behind.
“Ultimately, I’m a better attacker and he’s a better defender,” Smith said of he and Nouhou. “And if we can both play together and work well together, I think it can be a huge success.”
With Jordan Morris injured, Smith and Roldan will be tasked with providing some verticality and counterattacking bite while staying aware of the other half of the field as well.
“It’s a lot more running than just playing traditional left back, that’s for sure,” said Smith.
Joao Paulo, Cristian Roldan, and Lodeiro will form the central midfield threesome. Expect Roldan and Joao Paulo to deploy as a pair of interchangeable No. 8s in the double-pivot. As always, Lodeiro will roam wherever the game takes him, while either Joao Paulo or Roldan covers any weaknesses left in his wake.
Up top, the Sounders will feature two forwards for the first time in the Schmetzer era. Regardless of who starts alongside him, everything will revolve around designated player Raul Ruidiaz. The 30-year-old Peruvian was unusually wasteful in front of goal early in the season, but more than rounded into form by the end of the year, delivering 12 goals (tied for second in MLS) and three assists in 17 matches in 2020. He did miss almost a month of preseason while stuck in Peru sorting out green card issues. He finally arrived at training on Wednesday and played in a preseason friendly on Saturday.
Longtime MLS veterans Will Bruin and Fredy Montero figure to rotate alongside Ruidiaz. Bruin has outperformed expectations since joining the Sounders in 2017. His play last year was part of the reason Schmetzer first considered switching to two forwards.
Montero has by all accounts looked brilliant in preseason and been a joyful addition to the locker room.
“I think Fredy has had a tough couple years being in Vancouver and really wanting to be here instead,” said Cristian Roldan. “I joke around with him about that. He’s impressed us, man. His soccer IQ is really high. His technical ability is really, really good, and his ability to play that final pass or shoot the final shot is something that we can always use on our team. Fredy’s impressed me on and off the field. He’s a very smart guy, very good player, and just overall a good human being. We’ve needed a player like that in our locker room.”
Goalkeepers: Stefan Frei, Stefan Cleveland, Trey Muse (loaned to USL Championship side San Diego Loyal).
Defenders: Xavier Arreaga, Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Nouhou, Shane O’Neill, Alex Roldan, Brad Smith.
Midfielders: Josh Atencio, Jordy Delem, Ethan Dobbelaere, Shandon Hopeau, Danny Leyva, Nicolas Lodeiro, Jimmy Medranda, Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan, Joao Paulo, Kelyn Rowe.
Forwards: Will Bruin, Fredy Montero, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, Raul Ruidiaz