I would like to start with an apology to Portland Timbers fans in advance of the content of this article, as the Seattle Sounders have clearly taken a step forward ahead of their Cascadian rivals. With their 3-2 win over Minnesota United, Seattle has clearly become the greatest franchise of the past decade. The Sounders have surpassed the LA Galaxy in terms of appearances (four-to-three) and have a chance this coming weekend to match their three cup wins. Seattle clinched their fourth appearance to the cup using the same principles that built this team from the beginning, win and get better through any means necessary. This article will take a look at just quite what that means, both in their win over the Loons as well as their run of sustained success.
Down 2-0, it looked to the audience watching at home that Seattle may have finally hit their head on the ceiling. Minnesota had played the Sounders perfectly through 70 minutes, frustrating the way Seattle wanted to attack by clogging up crossing lanes to their strikers and taking advantage of two crucial set pieces to take what seemed a commanding lead. But head coach Brian Schmetzer decided that Seattle wasn’t going to go out like that and made three changes in the span of four minutes. Kelvin Leerdam and Brad Smith replaced starters Nouhou Tolo and Alex Roldan at fullback while the forward Will Bruin was swapped for midfielder Joao Paulo. These subs indicated a change in offensive philosophy as well as formation. Bruin would partner with striker Raul Ruidaz to form a front-two, with two lines of four behind them. Both Smith and Leerdam both offered more pace and offensive versatility than those they replaced. Seattle would clearly be surging forward, but not just through the wings as had previously been dictated. The forwards would clearly be more of an outlet as well and would bring about the first goal. A line drive kick from the substitute Leerdam into Ruidiaz at the top of Minnesota’s 18-yard box led to a mad scramble that ended with fellow substitute Will Bruin punching the ball into the back of the net in the 75th minute. The clear change of intent, the change in tactics and the change in personnel led Seattle to their first goal of the evening. It also clearly gave the team the lift it needed to fight until the end, putting in two goals from corner kicks to send the Loons home quickly after. This was a win that was a result of the flexibility in Seattle’s roster design and overall strategy of play.
Seattle General Manager Gareth Lagerway was hired to lead the front office with one mandate – improve the team by any means necessary. And Lagerway has taken that to heart. Look no further than the starting line-up and subsequent substitutes that lead to Monday’s win. Designated players Nicolas Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz and Joao Paulo were all proven commodities in South America and were brought into man Seattle’s most important positions. Beyond their native continent, they have other shared traits as well, mainly professionalism and unlimited engines. Whereas as other, flashier Designated Players have come to the US and have fallen flat, Seattle has a distinct advantage in that they have maximized the value of these slots by bringing in three studs. All have proven themselves worthy of that higher pay grade.
Will Bruin, Joevin Jones, Shane O’Neill, Yeimar Andrade, Brad Smith, Gustav Svensson and Kelvin Leerdam have all been signed as mid-salary veterans from abroad and domestically to fill positions of need. Leerdam, Svensson and Andrade have particularly been shrewd signings from different parts of the world. Svensson was playing in the Chinese Super League before their rules about foreign players forced him off the roster and right into the waiting arms of the Seattle Sounders. He’s proven to be a defensive rock in the midfield, operating as a shield for the back line. Leerdam was plucked from the Netherlands, where after a promising start with club Vitesse, backroom drama had caused him to be dropped and subsequently released from the club. He, like Svensson, found a new home to thrive in Seattle. Andrede was a journeyman in Argentina before he too was plucked for a cool $3.85 million dollar transfer fee by the Seattle Sounders. The native Columbian has been Seattle’s most consistent center-back this season.
The remaining players that we haven’t talked about from Monday are the domestic players that the Sounders have developed, Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan and Alex Roldan. Morris has gone from a pacey, direct forward when he chose to sign with Seattle in 2016 to a well-rounded winger that can both score goals and create chances for other players. Coming off a dominate season where he was in the running for MVP, Morris is a testament to the commitment Seattle places on player development. Cristian Roldan is another representative of that after being taken in the first round of the MLS Super Draft in 2015 out of the University of Washington. Seattle has used Cristian since his rookie year almost as a swiss army knife, playing him at fullback, center mid, attacking center mid and on the wing. His ball winning ability, passing vision and tenacity has been on full display since his rookie season. Alex, Cristian’s younger brother, is a much different case. While also a first-round pick, he was much less of an instant success and was even cut at the beginning of the 2019 season after failing to impress in the center midfield. But after choosing to take a lesser contract, as well as accepting a position switch, he has made headway into the roster and has been the reserve right-back this season. He also has become a post-season hero of sorts this season, as he has now started all three playoff games in place of the injured Leerdam.
The roster construction make-up for this team is a testament to the scouting and development of the front office, but what makes this team soar is their play on the field. Playing a fairly standard 4-2-3-1, this formation has put the players in the best position to succeed. Ruidiaz operates as the lone forward at the tip of the spear, with left-winger Jordan Morris operating high as a second forward. The right-winger (normally Jones or Roldan) inverts centrally, opening up the channel for Kelvin Leerdam to come forward and wreak havoc from the wing. The defense is held together by the two center midfielders (Svensson and Paulo) who protect the space in front of the center-backs. But it is Lodeiro at the attacking midfield spot that allows this particular shape to really sing. If you have watched him individually on the field, you would think he is training for a marathon. He appears centrally, up high and on both flanks at any time in the game. This is done so his work rate and attacking instincts can be used to their full devastating effect, as a team cannot simply man-mark him out of a game. Which is also the beauty of this formation, its shape and structure means that there are no clear weak parts of the defense which frees a player of Lodeiro’s talent to attack the game how he chooses. Both offensively and defensively, this team is tough to break down for opposing managers.
The last key piece of this team is mentality, it wants to win flat out and, in any way, possible. Morris, Lodeiro and Ruidiaz are more than skilled enough to win a shootout such as their 4-3 win over Dallas in last year’s opening round playoff game. They also are comfortable playing defensive soccer like in their 1-0 win also against FC Dallas this season, where the only goal was scored off a header by center defender Shane O’Neill. Attacking players are willing to defend, defensive players are willing to move into the attack. Their identity is winning, through whatever means necessary.
It’s this identity that Seattle will be bringing this Saturday when the Sounders travel to Columbus to play the Crew. It will be an opportunity for this team to put their stamp as one of the MLS’ greatest. History has shown that it’s a good bet that will happen.