The Seattle Sounders are dealing with their first season of transition in the Brian Schmetzer regime. Seattle talisman Jordan Morris is recovering from a torn ACL, while regular stalwarts Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam, and Gustav Svensson have departed to new clubs. That is a lot of minutes that have walked out the door, leaving the Sounders with a choice on how they want to play in the 2020 season. Do they stick with the formation that has gotten them to the MLS cup final in four out of the last five seasons, or do they switch things up to match their personnel this season?
The season opener gave fans a sneak peek into Schmetzer’s thinking, as they ditched the patented 4-2-3-1 in favor of a 3-5-2 shape. The reasons why are obvious. With Morris injured, Jones gone, and the Cristian Roldan-at-winger experiment a failure, the Sounders were bereft of options on the wing, even more so when they decided to ship out promising youngster Shandon Hopeau on loan to San Antonio FC. Pair that lack of options with the return of Sounders legend Fredy Monteiro, and it made much more sense to convert to a two-striker system.
This would allow Schmetzer to pair DP-striker Raul Ruidiaz with one of Monteiro or long-time veteran Will Bruin. Both provide plenty of support to the star forward, with Monteiro chipping more playmaking ability and Bruin using his A+ hold-up play. Schmetzer opted for Bruin against Minnesota, and the results are hard to argue with. Two goals for Ruidiaz, an assist for Bruin, and a goal for Monteiro when he subbed into the match. Offensively, it was a very promising showing against a Minnesota side that had gotten to the Western Conference Semi-Finals the season prior.
Further down the pitch, the three midfielders deployed centrally were Roldan, Joshua Atencio, and Joao Paulo. Paulo, deservedly, will get most of the plaudits from this game as he scored a banger off of a chip to himself that will put him in the goal of the year conversation. On top of his golazo, he provided excellent defensive cover and mobility. Roldan was his usual strong self, winning the ball back, harassing the opposing defense, and providing an assist for one of the easiest goals of Ruidiaz’s career. But what may be the most important development for the Sounders, both this season and going forward, was the stellar play of 19-year-old Atencio. At 6’2”, he certainly didn’t look like a youngster, and his ability on the ball didn’t demarcate him as a novice either. He played a very clean game to relieve the injured Lodeiro, winning 11 tackles and completing 79% of his passes, including 17 in the opposition’s half. One long ball, in particular, stands out in my mind as he knocked a long pass forward to play Will Bruin into the opposition’s box, freeing him for an easy pass to Ruidiaz for a clean shot on goal. While Bruin mishit the pass a little bit, resulting in an off-target hit from Ruidiaz, the opening of such an opportunity proves that Atencio will do a lot more than connect passes. He is direct, dangerous, and has the opportunity to be the Tacoma Defiance’s first true success out of the Sounder’s academy.
Defensively, the Sounders deployed their back five to maximize mobility. Xavier Arreaga has real pace as a center back, and Nouhou Tolo manned the left center back spot as a converted full-back. His size and strength gives him that versatility. Shane O’Neill, though is definitely more on the plodding side and was the furthest back of the three center backs on most defensive possessions. These three proved adept enough to cover the back end, allowing the outside wing-backs to join the attack. Alex Roldan and Brad Smith offer real craft on the ball and excellent crossing ability while still having the speed to make it back if the Sounders were to lose possession in the opponent’s half. It’ll be interesting to see how they line up against teams that have more ability to retain the ball than Minnesota United.
Early season results tend to pull the wool over one’s eyes, but the Sounders certainly have shown enough to give fans hope that their winning ways will remain even with the departure of some prominent players. While Schmetzer hasn’t confirmed or denied that he will stick with this new formation, week one will certainly mean that we’ll see it while Lodeiro remains out. But this 4-0 thumping vs. Minnesota indicates that this Sounders’ dynasty won’t go silently into the night.