It is midseason for Major League Soccer, as the league enters a two-week international break. Players from most teams across MLS are playing for their national teams in competitions all over the world.
Teams will use this time to get healthy, evaluate the first half of the season and formulate a game plan for moving forward. Some will be happy with the first half, but many, like the Seattle Sounders, will be disappointed and will look to regroup.
How will the Sounders grade their first half of the season? Here is my take on the team including mid-term grades for each player on the roster.
“An Injury-Riddled Roller Coaster”
The Sounders head into the break with seven wins, four losses and five ties. They have just one point to show for their last four games. A four-game winless streak is not what they wanted at this point in the campaign. They’ve gifted goals and games to opposing teams and should be disappointed in their record at the halfway point.
The first half of the season can only be described as an injury-riddled roller coaster. They shot out of the gate with a six-game unbeaten streak; that’s five wins and just one tie. Expectations began to rise and a return to the MLS Final looked promising.
Then reality set in.
In soccer, a team is very—and I emphasize VERY—lucky to get through the season without significant injuries to star players. On the good side, no player has been lost for the season (other than Chad Marshall retiring—more on that in a minute). But the team has been ravaged with injuries the past six or seven games.
The Sounders were fortunate to field pretty much the same lineup during their hot start, but since that time, almost every starter has been sidelined with some sort of ailment. The injury report is too long to list; it’s safe to say the team was fortunate to have built up a good amount of points in order to weather the storm and get healthy.
When the first team is on the field, they can compete with any team in the league. But, after losing the likes of goal scorers Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris, the team struggled. Victor Rodriguez missed time with a hamstring injury, leaving Nicholas Lideiro with no one to play off or pass to.
The retirement of Chad Marshall also is a huge blow. He was the team’s best defender, and it showed at the beginning of the season. His physical presence and aerial ability will be sorely missed. It’s a shame his knees couldn’t hold up, and it was hard to watch him struggle in his last games as he bravely tried to play through it.
The second half of the season must be about staying healthy and integrating newcomers Xavier Arreaga and Joevin Jones. Both players have shown they are capable of contributing, and it will be important to use them properly in order to add depth in case the injury bug lingers.
The coaching staff has shown an uncanny ability to get the team to peak at the right times. More than ever, it will be crucial this season that the team is playing at a high level come playoff time.
The Western Conference is stronger than ever and getting through the playoffs will take a huge effort. But the team has shown, when healthy, it can play with anyone.
Let’s hope they’re still playing deep into October.
Brian Schmetzer: For the head coach, you can split the first part of the season in two halves. All he had to do to start the year was roll out his A-team and watch them play. That led to the six-game unbeaten streak. Then injuries took hold and he had to step it up. Juggling a lineup with players coming and going is never easy.
He’s done an admirable job keeping the team afloat as it struggles to get healthy. It’s hard to blame the coach for the recent four-game winless streak, but it is his responsibility to get the team prepared. It appeared in some of these games, especially on the road, that they lacked focus, leading to own goals and missed opportunities.
In the last two games the team looked to be playing not to lose instead of taking it to Dallas and Montreal. These were two winnable games no matter the lineup. These are the games they may look back on at the end of the season and rue the day they didn’t come to play.
Nicolas Lodeiro (14 games, 2 goals, 8 assists, 28 shots): The midfielder is my first-half team MVP. His eight assists are second in the league, and he has shown time and time again a knack for finding open space on the field to get the ball to players in dangerous areas. He is a relentless workhorse and never stops running. He is the engine that makes the Sounders run.
Lodeiro does disappear at times, and when the A-team is not on the field, he tries to do too much and gives the ball away needlessly.
When he’s on, he’s on. But when he is off, which is rare, his turnovers can be costly.
Raul Ruidiaz (10 games, 8 goals, 1 assist, 28 shots): He leads the team in goals and is always a threat with the ball in the box. His main problem has been staying healthy. His heel injury lingered longer than anyone expected, and playing in just 10 games hurts.
Ruidiaz has shown when healthy that he is a lethal scorer and one of the best in the league. However, during defensive games, he becomes invisible.
If Ruidiaz is not getting service from his midfielders, he’ll go long stretches where you wonder if he is even on the field. But as with many strikers, it only takes one touch of brilliance to remind fans why he is the starting forward.
Jordan Morris (12 games, 4 goals, 1 assist, 14 shots): Morris came into the season in great shape after having sat out all last year with a knee injury. He showed no rust from his layoff, scoring three goals in the team’s first three games. It looked to be the year he finally lived up to his massive potential.
However, since that third game, he has just one goal, zero assists and 10 shots.
Morris looks like he spent much of his injury time in the weight room and appears much more muscular than in previous seasons. With many athletes, the muscles look good, but the massive legs tend to succumb to hamstring injuries. And Morris was no exception, missing the last four games with the leg injury. He is fast and always dangerous but needs to finish his chances. I always like his work ethic; I would just like to see him get more out of all his efforts.
Cristian Roldan (15 games, 3 goals, 1 assist, 14 shots): I already gave out my MVP, but Roldan is right there and is probably co-MVP with Lodeiro. Many wondered how the team would fare without Ozzie Alonso on the roster. Roldan’s play makes you forget how important Alonso was to the team.
I wasn’t a big fan of the first couple of seasons, but as I’ve watched him mature and gain experience, he has made himself an invaluable player on this team. His tenacity and grit are what I like to see out of defensive midfielders. He is not afraid to mix it up and is constantly putting out fires. Two of his three goals are goals-of-the-year candidates that will be watched for many years to come.
My only criticism would be his touch and decision making. In the heat of the battle, his skills tend to let him down and his contact on the ball gets a little heavy. He has massively improved in this area and he has a call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team to show for it.
Victor Rodriguiez (11 games, 2 goals, 3 assists, 19 shots): If only he could stay healthy. It seems he is either out with an injury, just coming back from a knock or trying to play through pain.
No question he is as talented as anyone on the field—when he gets on the field. His skill and vision are fantastic, and he makes it all look easy. His small frame (5-foot-6, 150 pounds) makes it hard to survive the pounding he takes game in and game out. He’s shown moments of excellence, but it always leaves me wanting more.
Kelvin Leerdam (15 games, 4 goals, 2 assists, 10 shots): Yes, you read that right. Four goals and that from your outside fullback. Wow. He knows how to get in the right positions at the right time in front of the goal. I don’t think he is a secret weapon anymore.
His defending has been solid, but he had a howler of a game again Montreal on June 5. He needlessly took down Impact forward Saphir Taïder in the box for a penalty kick. The player was heading out of bounds and had no one to pass the ball to as all Leerdam’s teammates had the area covered.
He MUST make better decisions as one of the leaders on this team. On the game’s second goal, he lost Taïder in the penalty box and Taïder was able to tap in an errant shot. Game over. Leerdam has to lead by example and stay focused.
Brad Smith (14 games, 0 goals, 4 assists, 5 shots): The Australian left back has been a revelation. His speed and crossing ability are a godsend. He is dangerous every time he is headed up field, and his decision making has been spot on. He is a tireless worker and one of my favorite players to watch.
I am intrigued to see how Schmetzer works Smith in with Jones. Both players are fast and left-footed and dangerous on the flanks. But are they too much alike? Can they play together, or will it just be added depth and another speedster to bring in late in games? It will be fun to watch.
Smith has been invaluable to this team with Chad Marshall’s retirement and injuries throughout the starting lineup. He has to stay healthy for this team to succeed. The only issue is whether he will be around to see the summer. His loan from England expires in June. Hopefully something can be worked out and he can stick around.
Kim Kee-Hee (14 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, 6 shots): The South Korean center back will benefit greatly from the break as he has missed the last two games with a leg injury. He had been a mainstay on the back line as Marshall struggled with his knees. He is quiet but seems to always make the right tackle.
He needs to improve his skills playing the ball out of the back, but he seems to be improving. At 6-foot-1, he needs to be more of a threat in the air, especially on the offensive end.
Moving forward, I think the center back position is in good hands and will be a three-headed monster with Roman Torres and Xavier Arreaga. All are capable players and anchor a solid back line.
Roman Torres (11 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 5 shots): Torres appeared to be the odd man out with Marshall and Kee-Hee starting the season at center back. Torres came into camp out of shape and rumors swirled that he was on his way out and the team was looking to trade him.
Thank God that didn’t happen.
Marshall’s retirement shocked everyone and thrust Torres into the starting lineup. The time Marshall needed to cement his decision awarded Torres time to get in shape and get his touch back. He has played solidly but not spectacularly. He is a force in the air and a hardy tackler. He tends to get caught out of position when he ball-watches but usually makes up for it with crisp tackles.
He still appears below 90-minute-match fit but close enough. He may still be the odd man out if Arreaga and Kee-Hee properly mesh, but that will take time. He is a great piece to have on your roster.
Stefan Frei (16 games, 51 saves, 5 shutouts): You never have to worry about Frei taking his spot between the pipes. He is an asset to this team every time he steps on the field. He is second in the league in saves. I would venture to guess that more than half those saves were far from routine.
Frei always seems to be in the right place at the right time and rarely gets wrong footed. The defense has let him down on numerous occasions, but he seems to save their bacon more often than not. He organizes his defense well and is a phenomenal shot blocker. The team is lucky to have him and lucky he is able to stay healthy.
Harry Shipp (13 games, 2 goals, 2 assists, 11 shots): Every team needs a Harry Shipp. In baseball he would be called an innings eater. He fills in when a starter goes down and he does his job well. His two goals have been timely, and he works hard.
Will Bruin (9 games, 2 goals, 1 assist, 8 shots). Like Shipp, Bruin fills in when everyone is hurt. He didn’t see the field in the season’s first two games, and it looked like he might never get time with the way Ruidiaz and Morris shot out of the gate. But as soccer goes, injuries crept in and his playing time increased.
While not spectacular, he has been solid with his aerial game and hold-up play. He is never going to beat you with speed, but you can’t outwork him. He excels when he gets service. When he doesn’t, he tends to disappear and that showed when he started the last game. He couldn’t get hold of the ball against Montreal and was ineffective.
Gustav Svensson (9 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, 6 shots): You tend to forget Svensson is on the field until he swoops in and makes a goal-saving tackle. He does all the dirty work but flies under the radar. The 32-year-old veteran is always solid with his passing and tackling, and you rarely find him out of position or chasing the game.
When the team is winning, the defense is solid, and he is a big reason. He smothers the danger before it gets to the backline. He has missed time with a leg injury and will benefit from the break. He is another invaluable player who will have to play a big part if this team is going to survive the season. Grade B+
Jordy Delem (10 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 1 shot): Delem has been asked to fill the no-frills role of sitting in front of the backline and slowing down any potential threats. It’s not a sexy job, nor very visible, but he does it well. Not as well as Svensson, but serviceable. His ball skills leave a lot to be desired, but that is not why he is out there. I would like to see him be a little more aggressive with his tackles, as his tentativeness has cost the team a couple of goals.
He’s filled in admirably for injured players and will no doubt see more time down the road. Let’s hope his time on the pitch will continue to be solid as he looks to broaden his impact.
Handwalla Bwana (9 games, 1 goal, 1 assist, 7 shots). One of the more skilled players on the roster, he has been asked to provide a spark out wide as a starter (4 games) or off the bench. Schmetzer wants him to go at players and get himself and the ball into dangerous areas. For the most part, he has succeeded. But he often shows his inexperience.
Bwana is only 19 years old and his future is bright. He just needs game time to improve his skills and confidence. He has shown glimpses of brilliance but has also often shown his age.
Nouhou Tolo (11 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 2 shots). He’s started just three games and usually comes in as a late-game sub to provide more defense and let others move forward to get involved in the offense. He also shows his age (21) and inexperience and at times his decision-making is head-scratching. He needs to improve his service into the box and hopefully is watching Brad Smith closely. He definitely works hard and uses his speed well. But until something happens with Smith or Jones, his playing time may be limited.
No grade due to limited playing time: Alex Roldan, Henry Wingo, Saad Abdul-Salaam, Jonathan Campbell, Xavier Arreaga, Joevin Jones, Daniel Leyva, Alfonso Ocampo Chavez
Sitting in third place at the break leaves the Sounders in good position to make a run at the top spot in the league and secure home field advantage in the playoffs. To do that, however, they will need to get healthy, take care of their home matches and start winning on the road.
If past results are any indication, the Sounders should be peaking when the games really start to matter.