The Seattle Sounders have never missed the Major League Soccer Playoffs. They have had great success from the start of the franchise, which in recent years includes winning the Supporters’ Shield (best league record) in 2014, winning the 2016 MLS Cup and losing in the Finals in 2017. As exciting as all those years have been, each season seems to come with an asterisk. Not an asterisk saying they didn’t deserve those results, but that the team didn’t put together a complete season.
When I say complete season, I mean they are strong out of the gate, maintain excellence during the summer doldrums and run through the playoffs in a dominant fashion. Portland did it in 2015, Toronto FC did it in 2017 and Atlanta FC did it last season.
Heading into the 2019 campaign, the Seattle Sounders appear to have all the ingredients to put their names on that exclusive list. Here are five reasons I think this could be the best season of them all.
1. Healthy Jordan Morris – The wind was ripped out of the sails of the 2018 season before it even began for the Sounders. Star forward Jordan Morris went down with a season-ending knee injury during their CONCACAF Champions League match in February, and it sent shock waves through the organization. A three-headed monster of Morris, Clint Dempsey and Will Bruin was supposed to wreak havoc on opposing defenses with the combination of speed (Morris), technical ability (Dempsey) and aerial prowess and holdup play (Bruin). That was all lost when Morris went down, and suddenly the Sounders lacked any speed to get behind defenses and stretch the field. Teams could now double team Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro (more on him in a minute), and it left the team toothless. It wasn’t until Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz and fleet-footed left back Brad Smith were signed midseason that an element of speed was reintroduced to the squad. It played a big part in their success in the second half of last season (14-2-1).
With Morris back and healthy, according to all reports, the element of speed returns. You can’t coach speed, and when the Sounders have been at their best in the past, players like Morris, Joevin Jones, Smith, Nouhou and others were streaking downfield on the fast break, putting pressure on opposing defenses and scoring goals.
If Morris stays healthy and can team with Ruidiaz for a full season, the sky’s the limit on how many goals those two can score.
2. Ruidiaz & Lodeiro – Ruidiaz was signed to the team in June as the Sounders were struggling with their identity and bouncing around the bottom of the conference standings. The season looked lost as they started 3-9-3.
But the World Cup veteran striker was a godsend. His combination of speed and technical ability was a breath of fresh air for the team. Among other things, it forced Dempsey to realize his career as a full-time starter was over, and his retirement took the pressure off the team to feel like they had to play the face of their team. His arrival also opened the field for playmaker Lodeiro to do his job of getting the ball to players in dangerous positions and scoring goals himself.
A full season of a healthy and motivated Morris, Ruidiaz and Lodeiro could spell trouble for the rest of the league.
3. Longer offseason – One of the downsides of success in the MLS is that it shortens the team’s offseason rest period. Finishing at the top of the standings qualifies the team for regional competitions outside of Major League Soccer, which can mean greater exposure and increased financial gain. On paper it looks like a great reward for a successful season.
However, these competitions mean more games, and they begin before the MLS season starts when the rest of the league is just shaking the offseason rust. This means the Sounders had to be much closer to regular season form if they were to advance in the tournaments instead of easing into the regular season.
This past year the team did not qualify for any regional competitions and therefore will enter the 2019 season coming off the longest offseason they have had in the past two years (10 weeks rather than six). This means the team has had more time to recuperate from the grueling season and can hit training camp refreshed and ready to charge. This fact alone should play a big part in the team starting the year strong and not digging themselves a huge hole to climb out of as they did in 2018.
4. Deep roster of role players – the MLS has condensed its season for 2019 to avoid a long, drawn out postseason and playing games in December. This means more games in a shorter period, so a deep roster of contributing players is crucial. Teams have to plan for injuries and fatigue, and the Sounders have accumulated a roster of role players who can fill in when the starters have to take off a game or two. Players like Harry Shipp, Nouhou, Roman Torres and Will Bruin are all capable of starting for other MLS teams, and to have them on the bench and ready to play will be essential.
5. Stellar Defense – When you look at the Sounders the question marks are all about the offense and scoring goals. Worrying about the defense is a waste of time. When you have the runners-up for MLS Goalkeeper and Defender of the Year in Stefan Frei and Chad Marshall, it tends to put your mind at ease. The Sounders’ backline only gave up 37 goals for the season (2nd best) and Frei had 7 shutouts and a tiny 1.07 goals against average.
The backline is pretty well set with Marshall, Kim Kee-hee, Kelvin Leerdam and Australian Brad Smith penciled in as the starters. But expect to see lots of Torres and Nouhou filling in, and the team shouldn’t miss a beat if one of the starters goes down. Defense wins championships.
The Sounders have all the ingredients in place for a successful season. They have a high-octane offense, playmakers in the midfield and a stellar defense. Barring any significant injuries, this team is more than capable of putting together the elusive complete season. Is this the year the Sounders run the table and finish with another MLS Cup? Major League Soccer is only getting stronger league-wide, so if they do it will be a major accomplishment. Game on!