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MLS 2022: Seattle Sounders Season Preview

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The end of the 2021 campaign came oddly early for the Seattle Sounders. A club that reached the MLS Cup final four times in the previous five years found itself booted from the first round of the playoffs, its earliest departure in a decade. After 120 minutes of scoreless soccer at Lumen Field, longtime rival Real Salt Lake bested the Sounders on penalties, pulling off a stunning road upset without ever taking a shot.

It was a bitter end to a season that began in record-breaking form.

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Usually penciled in as MLS Cup contenders, many preseason prognosticators pegged the Sounders to endure an off year, at least by the club’s championship-or-bust standards. Gone were a slew of key veterans: Gustav Svensson, Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam, and Harry Shipp, to name a few. Jordan Morris tore an anterior cruciate ligament while on loan with Swansea City in February. Nicolas Lodeiro, arguably the best midfielder in MLS when at the top of his game, began the season sidelined with knee pain. He didn’t make an appearance until May and ended up undergoing two operations. He played 459 minutes all year.

All that talent was replaced with journeyman midfielder Kelyn Rowe and 33-year-old forward Fredy Montero. Nice players both. Good homecoming stories, too. Not a cavalry.

And yet the boys from the Emerald City blew the doors off the darn hinges, opening the campaign with a league-record 13-match unbeaten streak. Bereft of wingers, head coach Brian Schmetzer deployed a three-man back line, seeming to catch off-guard a league that had come to see the Sounders as synonymous with the 4-2-3-1 for nearly half a decade.

The Sounders finished with 60 points, good for second in the Western Conference. Raul Ruidiaz, Joao Paulo, and Yeimar Gomez-Andrade submitted MLS Best XI campaigns. Joao Paulo was even a finalist for league MVP. Cristian Roldan blossomed, and at right back his brother Alex was one of the league’s breakout players. Nouhou was a revelation at center back before a thigh injury sidelined him for nearly three months.

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There were team successes, too. The Sounders went to Portland in mid-August and poleaxed the Timbers 6-2. They reached the Leagues Cup final, falling 3-2 to Liga MX side Leon. It was a campaign worth savoring, until it wasn’t.

Known to finish a season in torrid form, the Sounders sputtered down the stretch, posting an 0-2-3 record in the five matches heading into the playoffs. Losing to seventh-seeded RSL may have been an upset: It wasn’t a surprise, not if you believe in the power of form.

Yet if expectations around the Puget Sound were a little more modest than usual last spring, a year later they areā€¦not so modest. Morris is healthy, and so the 4-2-3-1 is probably back as well. Lodeiro appears to be healthy (but go ahead and knock on the nearest wood if you’re so inclined). Nouhou is healthy and coming off a potentially career-defining set of performances for Cameroon in the African Cup of Nations. The Sounders return every key player but Brad Smith and Shane O’Neill, and they have capable replacements for both defenders.

They also have Albert Rusnak.

The Sounders inked the 27-year-old Slovakia international to a Designated Player contract in January. It easily stands as the highest-profile signing in the brief history of MLS free agency. A product of Manchester City’s academy, Rusnak delivered 41 goals and 39 assists in 140 games over five years for Real Salt Lake.

Yes, the Sounders already had three top-flight DPs on the payroll in Ruidiaz, Lodeiro, and Joao Paulo: they were able to buy down Joao Paulo’s contract with Targeted Allocation Money. Yes, the Sounders now essentially boast four DPs. Yes, they are essentially adding Rusnak, Lodeiro, and Morris to a team that finished with 60 points last season. Yes, the rest of the league should be worried. And, lastly, yes: Garth Lagerwey is a walking cheat code.

Here is a closer look at the 2022 Seattle Sounders:


2022 Seattle Sounders Preview


2021 FINISH: 17-8-9, 60 points (second place in the Western Conference, lost to Real Salt Lake in the first round)

KEY LOSSES: Shane O’Neill, Brad Smith

KEY ACQUISITIONS: Albert Rusnak


Newcomer to Watch: Albert Rusnak


Lyndsay Radnedge/ISI Photos

The short answer: Rusnak. The long answer: Rusnak, Rusnak, Rusnak.

When the Sounders signed Rusnak on Jan. 13, they dropped one of the league’s top attacking midfielders into what was already an embarrassingly talented attacking coterie. Landing Rusnak, and stealing him from the scrappy rival that just booted them from the playoffs, was a mic drop, a statement of intent, a financial flex. It was a reminder, to paraphrase (and sanitize) a locally famous Schmetzer quote, that the Sounders are indeed the Seattle freaking Sounders.

Rusnak delivered 11 goals and 11 assists for a seventh-seeded team last season. It’s tantalizing to consider what he might accomplish surrounded by such a glut of attacking talent.

“No offense to any other teams,” said goalkeeper Stefan Frei after training in January, “but I think that with the players that we’ll have around him, I’m hoping we’ll see a Rusnak nobody has seen before. With the likes of Joao Paulo, Raul up top, Nico running around, Cristian and the rest of the squad, it’s going to be very difficult to keep tabs on every player. We have a lot of skill on the field if we’re able to stay healthy and put all these weapons onto the field.”

Early in preseason, before Rusnak trained with the team, Schmetzer repeatedly tried to downplay expectations. But after training with Rusnak for three weeks he was asked where he thought the team stood offensively. The Sounders’ head coach cut off a reporter before he was even done asking his question.

“I think we’re gonna be really good,” Schmetzer said, trying and failing to contain a grin. “I’ll just get right to the point. I think we’re going to be really good offensively. Albert adds another dimension. He loves shooting from the top of the box, his set pieces are good. He’s gonna add something. You’re bringing Jordan back. Nico is coming back. I mean, the team looks pretty good offensively. Again, [I’m] tempering expectations, it’s only training. But in training they look pretty sharp.”

“I think Albert is going to be a fantastic player for us.”


The Pressure is On: Nouhou


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After a one-year stint as a central defender, the 24-year-old Nouhou returns to left back when the Sounders play in a 4-2-3-1. It remains to be seen what has happened to the attacking half of his game, which has always been something of an adventure. Perhaps the real pressure, though, comes in the aftermath of a masterful defensive performance against Mohamed Salah and Egypt in the African Cup of Nations.

While Nouhou has always displayed defensive skills hinting at the ability to succeed at a higher level, make no mistake: his play in the AFCON semifinal, which Cameroon lost on penalties, put him on the map. Lagerwey implicitly acknowledged as much when asked if any European clubs had reached out since the end of the tournament.

“We’ve not had any formal offers,” he said. “That’s where things stand right now.”

No formal offers is obviously not the same thing as no conversations.

“We’ll see if folks are interested, or they’re not,” Lagerwey said. “What I would tell you is they should be, after that performance. I thought Nouhou was dynamic and dynamite. I think he’s everything we’ve seen here in fits and starts over the past four or five years.”

But now what? For the first time in his career, Nouhou finds himself freighted with the burden of great expectation. In five years will AFCON 2022 be a fond highlight in a respectable MLS career, or the spark that launched a European odyssey? The coming months are definitive. The spotlight doesn’t linger, and fits and starts won’t do.

“The World Cup qualifiers that Cameroon plays in March will be a really important platform,” Lagerwey said. “Nouhou’s performance between now and then will be a very important platform. He’s had this moment. He’s had the spike. Can he sustain that? Can he come in and have that level of play with the Sounders in the Champions League, go back and do it again for Cameroon? That will ultimately determine whether there are offers for him or not, and what his opportunities are.”


Outlook


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On paper, it’s fair to tab the Sounders as Supporters’ Shield favorites, MLS Cup favorites, and the MLS side most likely to finally hoist a CONCACAF Champions League trophy. Front to back, this is a complete team. But it has to stay healthy, it has to handle the pressure attendant to the hype.

And Schmetzer has to find the best way to deploy all that talent.

To that end, the Sounders seem poised to return to the 4-2-3-1. Perhaps not exclusively, but certainly as a base formation. Morris is back, and Morris is a winger: the Sounders will play a formation featuring a winger so long as Morris bears some resemblance to his pre-injury self.

Stefan Frei returns to defend the Sounders’ goal for the ninth straight season. Like so many of his teammates, Frei will be looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2021. He missed four months last season after developing a blood clot in his leg while recovering from a sprained knee. Now 35, the Swiss-born Frei is a respected team leader and still capable of delivering game-changing saves. Health is high on his mind as the season nears.

“The goal,” he said in preseason camp, “is not to get injured.”

“I do treat myself and my career with the utmost respect during the offseason,” he added. “I do everything I can to make sure I’m healthy throughout the year. So hopefully I can play more games this year. That would be nice.”

From left to right, Nouhou, Xavier Arreaga, Gomez-Andrade, and Alex Roldan should constitute a formidable back line in front of Frei.

Nouhou returns to left back as one the best on-the-ball and team defenders in the league, though still searching for his first MLS goal in attack. An aggressive defender who likes to play a pass forward, Arreaga is still an adventure from time to time. In general, though, he is light years ahead of the nervous, mistake-prone center back who first joined the Sounders in 2019.

Lyndsay Radnedge/ISI Photos

After finding himself benched to start last season, Gomez-Andrade quickly reclaimed his spot and once again proved to be an elite center back at the MLS level. Alex Roldan followed up a breakout MLS campaign by becoming captain of the El Salvador national team and delivering a string of 90-minute gems in World Cup qualifying.

Josh Atencio and Abdouleye Cissoko provide depth at center back, while Jimmy Medranda and Kelyn Rowe back up the outside defenders.

The Sounders’ front six should prove a handful.

Cristian Roldan and Joao Paulo will work the double pivot in front of the back four. Both expanded their playmaking duties last year, in part due to the formation change and in part due to injuries. It will be fascinating to see how they adapt in a return to their old stomping grounds, as it were.

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A murderer’s row of Morris, Lodeiro, and Rusnak will sit underneath Ruidiaz. Kelyn Rowe, Leo Chu (U22 Initiative), and a plethora of children — Josh Atencio, Obed Vargas, Danny Leyva, Reed Baker-Whiting, Ethan Dobbelaere, and Dylan Teves — provide depth that will be tested in a congested calendar.

Ruidiaz, freshly inked to a new contract, returns to spearhead the attack. The 31-year-old Peruvian has been good for 59 goals and 15 assists in 90 matches over the last four seasons (regular season and playoffs). He has been one of the most lethal strikers in the league since joining the Sounders from Morelia in 2018, and he has never been serviced by an attacking collective quite like this. In short, it could be a goalfest at Lumen Field this summer. Will Bruin, Fredy Montero, and teenagers Sam Adeniran and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez round out the forward group.

It all looks incredibly sexy, on paper. But it comes down to health for the Seattle Sounders this season. Both the ability to avoid new injuries and the extent to which Morris and Lodeiro have recovered from previous ones. If all goes well on both of those fronts (and that is a big if), the Sounders should find themselves well positioned to lift some more hardware this season.


Seattle Sounders Roster


Goalkeepers: Stefan Cleveland, Stefan Frei, Andrew Thomas

Defenders: Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Xavier Arreaga, Abdouleye Cissoko, Jimmy Medranda, Nouhou, Alex Roldan

Midfielders: Josh Atencio, Reed Baker-Whiting, Leo Chu, Ethan Dobbelaerre, Joao Paulo, Danny Leyva, Nicolas Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan, Kelyn Rowe, Albert Rusnak, Obed Vargas, Dylan Teves

Forwards: Sam Adeniran, Will Bruin, Fredy Montero, Jordan Morris, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, Raul Ruidiaz

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