Soccer fans in the Pacific Northwest can rejoice. The 2020 Major League Soccer season gets underway next week, and if you are a Seattle Sounders’ supporter, it couldn’t come fast enough.
For the second time in four years, Sounders fans have bragging rights. They are the defending MLS Champions and will be looking to defend their MLS Cup title.
There has been significant roster turnover in Seattle, and many lingering questions remain this offseason. So, let’s dive in and answer a few of the most pressing fan questions heading into the new season.
Q. Several of last year’s key players are not on the Sounders’ roster. What happened? Who are some of the new faces, and what can we expect?
A. Finals MVP Victor Rodriquez, centerbacks Roman Torrez and Kim Kee-Hee, and left back Brad Smith are all gone from last year’s championship team. Ouch!
Rodriquez decided to return to his native Spain for family reasons, and Torrez and Kee-Hee had contract issues. Smith was on loan from the English Premier League and is under contract to return overseas (Cardiff City).
Those are some big holes to fill for the Sounders. But it does look like they have some capable replacements on board.
Brazilian midfielder Joao Paulo will look to fill Rodriquez’s playmaker role. He will partner with team-captain Nicolas Lodeiro and forward Raul Ruidiaz in the middle of the pitch to create a formidable and exciting attacking formation.
The backline will have a new look as well. Twenty-seven-year-old Columbian Yeimar Gomez Andrade slides into the vacant centerback role alongside Xavier Arreaga. Fan-favorite Nouhou and Joevin Jones will most likely trade off trying to replace Smith at the left back spot. Smith was dangerous running rampant up the outside, and the team can only hope those two can provide at least some of the speed and skill Smith brought to the position, one of interest to keep an eye on this season.
Q. The team seems to be flush with midfielders? Where is everyone going to play?
A. The addition of Paulo does not force the team to change formations but to move a few familiar faces into different positions.
Paulo prefers the defensive midfield role where he can stop the opposing team’s attack but also move forward and get into the attack.
It is the exact role Cristian Roldan has played so well the last couple of seasons. Roldan was a big contributor in the run to the title last year, so where does that leave him?
I see Roldan, Paulo, and Gustav Svensson rotating in the defensive midfield throughout the season. But the preferred starting lineup has Roldan playing out wide on the opposite side from Jordan Morris.
It gives the Sounders several versatile players who can interchange positions during a game, and it makes it difficult for teams to track all those dangerous players.
It is an extremely long season, however, and having as many players as possible that can play multiple positions is crucial.
One other player of note, changing positions this year, is Cristian Roldan’s brother Alex. A midfielder throughout his collegiate and Sounders’ career, the younger Roldan was just recently signed to a first-team contract and is being played at right back. He will add depth behind starter Kelvin Leerdam.
Q. What is the CONCACAF Champions League the Sounders are playing in this week?
A. CONCACAF is the regional governing body of soccer in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Each season the Champions League holds a tournament featuring 16 of the top teams from the region.
The Sounders qualified directly into the Round of 16 by winning the MLS title last season. They begin the tournament on Thursday, February 20, against Olimpia from Honduras for a two-game aggregate match. The team scoring the most goals in the two games moves on. However, if the score is still tied, the team scoring the most away goals advances. The final tiebreaker will be a penalty kick shootout.
The second game will be played Feb. 27 in Seattle. If they advance from there, the quarterfinals will be played between March 10-19.
Q. What are the Sounders’ biggest strengthens and weaknesses?
A. Strengths are easiest to identify. The offense, at least on paper, should be dynamite. The combination of Ruidiaz, Morris, and Lodeiro puts them near the top of the league in attacking talent. But the addition of Paulo takes them to a new level.
They will have some growing pains as they get used to playing with each other for sure. But if they can stay healthy and remain on the field together, I am excited to see what they can do.
Like I said earlier, the biggest weakness has to be the back line. Replacing three starters is going to be a tall task. There will be a huge learning curve for Andrade as he gets used to playing in the MLS. He should receive some help from veteran centerback Shane O’Neill, who was signed recently to add more depth.
But Stefan Frei in goal can make up for a lot of mistakes if the defense struggles to gel.
Q. Can the Sounders repeat last season and win another title?
A. Let me say this. It will be a VERY difficult task.
The main reason, for me, is the length of the season.
The Sounders played as many games as possible last season in capturing their second championship in four years. That is a lot of soccer, and with a short offseason (3 months) it makes for tired legs.
In 2020 they will play 34 MLS games, and if you throw on top of that a favorable draw in the Champions League tournament, that results in a grueling campaign.
It makes it vitally important to have depth up and down the roster, something I think the Sounders are lacking.
The addition of the quality players I mentioned above makes for an exciting and intriguing starting lineup. However, injuries play a huge role every season, and the Sounders saw that firsthand in 2019. They struggled mightily when Ruidiaz, Morris, and Smith, among others, missed an abundance of games.
I just don’t think the Sounders have enough quality players if they are forced to play many of their reserves for long periods of time. The likes of Jordy Delem, Harry Shipp, Justin Dhillon, Danny Leyva, Will Bruin and the other reserves just doesn’t put much fear in opponents. Serviceable? Yes. But players you have to really count on to make an impact.
If the team can defy the odds and stay healthy, I believe they will contend. Their past success late in the season bodes well, too.
So, will they hoist the trophy again in 2020?
That is a tough one to answer.
With the league only getting tougher top to bottom and the addition league-wide of so many quality, new players, it just doesn’t give me enough confidence to pick them. The league is wide open, so it should make for a very exciting season, but the Sounders face a tough road. I’ll be watching for certain.
But ask me again in July.