They say defense wins championships — and it did for the Seattle Sounders

Seattle Defense
Kelvin Leerdam fights for the ball against Toronto FC in the MLS Cup Championship match. Seattle won the title, 3-1. Photo courtesy of John A. Babiak/Last Word on Soccer.

Editorial — In soccer, plenty of spotlight goes on the goal scorers. For the Seattle Sounders, it’s hard to not praise the works of Raúl Ruidíaz, Nicolás Lodeiro and Jordan Morris. These are just a few names that command the attack for Seattle.

However, in sports, there’s an age old saying that defense wins championships. For the Seattle Sounders, that’s what happened on Sunday at home.

In front of over 69,000 fans at CenturyLink, the Sounders got off to a slow start. However, their defense remained strong and stout. Kim Kee-hee has been thrown in at centerback with more than five different combinations this year. He started out the season alongside Chad Marshall. However, injuries forced Marshall to retire this past summer.

Kim has been paired up with Román Torres, Xavier Arreaga, Jonathan Campbell, Saad Abdul-Salaam and even midfielder Gustav Svensson. For a guy that came from South Korea and is still adjusting to the language, Kim held strong the entire season.

He came up big in MLS Cup, too. Just ask forward Will Bruin.

 

And Stefan Frei, Seattle’s stalwart in net, also raved about his teammate.

Next to him, Panamanian defender Román Torres has excelled since his return from suspension and then injury. Torres was out for 10 matches this season for violating an MLS PED policy. However, in his return, Torres scored against Minnesota United FC. That win gave Seattle second place in the Western Conference.

Torres was the starter alongside Kim in MLS Cup. But, let’s not forget the two outside backs. Kelvin Leerdam — who scored the match’s first goal — isn’t a flashy player and doesn’t demand attention. He quietly goes about his job. However, when he’s called for big moments, he produces. As for Brad Smith, he lived up to his loan expectation with his speed and playmaking abilities.

Seattle Defense
Stefan Frei and Kim Kee-hee hold up the MLS Cup trophy after defeating Toronto FC, 3-1, on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. Photo courtesy of John A. Babiak/Last Word on Soccer.

How the Defense shut down Toronto 

In fair criticism, Seattle wasn’t at their best in the midfield or the attack in the first 45 minutes against Toronto. However, a halftime speech from Brian Schmetzer and a few tactical adjustments changed the flow of the match.

But, for that first half, the Sounders had a lot to do.

The only head-scratching moment on defense was a miscommunication between Kim and Frei. However, both players recovered from the miscommunication early and got on track. Toronto took 14 total shots in the match, with five on goal. Furthermore, Toronto had over 60 percent of possession after the first half.

Seattle had a lot of catching up to do and heavily relied on their backline. Kim and Torres remained strong at centerback, blocking and guarding attempts from Nicolas Benezet and Tsubasa Endoh. Meanwhile, Leerdam took command of the right side and had the difficult task of keeping guard on Alejandro Pozuelo and Benezet.

Seattle’s defense kept them in the match. With the chances that Toronto had in the first half, the Reds could have easily led by two or three goals. However, don’t take anything away from Stefan Frei, either. The veteran goalkeeper made diving saves to prevent opportunities for Toronto. He finished the afternoon with four saves — along with Quentin Westberg of Toronto.

Seattle’s defense isn’t the youngest group of bucks in the league. However, on the bench was a youngster: Xavier Arreaga.

The Ecuadorian international did not start, despite putting in a solid 90 minutes against Los Angeles FC. Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer knew what he was doing. In the end, when it comes to MLS Cup, experience helps. Torres has that experience. Also, there was no way Kim was getting replaced.

The Future of Seattle’s Defense looks Bright

That’s not the say the older guys will take the reins forever.

There was a time earlier this season when Torres wasn’t getting any minutes at all. To combat this and keep his fitness up, Schmetzer sent him down to Tacoma with the Defiance of the USL. However, with the retirement of Marshall and the shaky early play of Arreaga, Torres jumped back in.

The offseason is long, so there’s no telling what Seattle’s defense will look like next season. If it were up to Schmetzer, he’d keep everyone on the team. However, that’s not exactly how soccer works.

Torres could see dwindling minutes next year, too. Arreaga has been heralded as the next face of the defense for Seattle. He’s much younger than Torres, too, as he’s only a newly-minted 25-year-old. Torres is the second-oldest Sounders player, right behind Frei. Both are 33-years-old.

However, Torres is showing that he’s aging well and keeping in shape. His performances for club and country have propelled him to a championship and even a first-ever World Cup appearance.

The only large question mark for next season is Smith. In the summer, Smith and his wife packed up all their bags and were about to head back to England. However, they unpacked quickly when Bournemouth extended their loan with Seattle. With the way Smith has produced, fans have to wonder if Schmetzer and general manager Garth Lagerwey will try to barter for Smith permanently.

As for the right flank, Leerdam should be staying put. A native of Suriname, Leerdam has always been a quiet player. However, this year, he became a household name in Seattle with 29 appearances and five goals.

Seattle Defense
Román Torres dances after winning the MLS Cup title with the Seattle Sounders FC over Toronto FC. Photo courtesy of John A. Babiak/Last Word on Soccer.

What’s Next? 

Seattle will have some bartering to do for Smith and likely a contract negotiation with Torres. The Seattle defense is a crowded area, with Campbell and Abdul-Salaam also in the mix as backups. However, the Sounders are smart with their money and usually play their cards right.

It’s how they got to their third MLS Cup in four years.

Stay tuned for a busy offseason.

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