Seattle Sounders season preview: Will a new Sounders defense hold up?

Sounders preview defense
Xavier Arreaga celebrates the Seattle Sounders FC win over Los Angeles FC during the MLS Western Conference Finals in October 2019. Photo courtesy of Mike Fiechtner/Seattle Sounders FC.

Editorial — The MLS Cup champions are gearing up for another season of soccer. After winning the coveted league title last season, the Seattle Sounders FC saw a diaspora of players leave the club, especially on the Sounders defense. However, Garth Lagerwey, Sounders general manager, had one plea and wish for brooding fans.

Have patience and the club will obtain some players.

The patience was wearing thin, but then Lagerwey worked his general manager magic. In recent weeks, the Sounders have signed and acquired on loan João Paulo, Yeimar Gómez Andrade and retained Harry Shipp.

Defense is where the Sounders took a major hit. In fact, Kelvin Leerdam is the only defender on the Sounders roster that started in the MLS Cup final against Toronto FC. Other starters included Kim Kee-hee, Román Torres and Brad Smith. Kim is hunting for a new job back in Asia, while Torres signed with Inter Miami. Meanwhile, Smith went back to Bournemouth and is currently on loan with Cardiff City.

The Sounders had to scramble to find defensive pieces ahead of the Concacaf Champions League competition. Luckily, the Sounders defense has returned Xavier Arreaga, who was signed as a Designated Player last summer, and Nouhou, the Cameroonian international.

What does Seattle have to do to retain their MLS Cup title? In this season preview, we’ll look at defense, how much of a role strikers will play and how this can be the year of Gustav Svensson.

Sounders Defense almost entirely new-look

Defensive partnerships don’t just form overnight. The Sounders had some bumps and bruises along the road before lifting up the trophy last year. Chad Marshall retired in the summer and Arreaga was paired with South Korean Kim, who spoke little English and no Spanish.

It does help Arreaga that Gómez Andrade speaks Spanish and is a native of Colombia. However, Arreaga didn’t see the minutes that he might have expected last year. He’s still learning the Sounders system. Essentially, the Sounders are throwing Arreaga and Gómez Andrade into the deep end.

There’s a strong chance that they’ll swim instead of sink. These are two players that Lagerwey and head coach Brian Schmetzer are high on. Arreaga’s issue last year was acclimating with MLS, not necessarily the Sounders defense. Before coming to MLS, Arreaga had never received a red card in his career. However, last season, he picked up two red cards.

Now, it’s up to Gómez Andrade to adjust to MLS-style soccer.

This is where Leerdam is going to have to step up. He’s been a leader before and has become one of the more vocal players for the Sounders. Now, he has to take his veteran status to the next level, and help guys like Arreaga and Gómez Andrade get accustomed to the league and the team. Leerdam had one of his best seasons in 2019 — scoring five goals in 29 regular-season matches — so look for him to want to carry that success over to 2020.

The question of left back also looms large. Joevin Jones is listed as a defender and midfielder on the roster, so he can fill the role. However, behind Smith on last year’s depth chart was Nouhou. Schmetzer could also pull Jordy Delem from the midfield into a left back role. That’s a position that will need shored up before the season begins.

What will another year of healthy Morris bring?

Last year, Jordan Morris made a splash in his comeback return to MLS.

He missed the entire 2018 season with an ACL tear and rehabilitation. When he suited up for the first match of 2019, Morris let it rip. He scored against FC Cincinnati and went on total 10 goals in 26 matches. Only Raúl Ruidíaz was in front of him, as the Peruvian scored 11 goals. Morris also provided seven assists, which was second most behind Nicolás Lodeiro.

Morris’ performance won him the Comeback Player of the Year from MLS. Last year, fans were crossing their fingers tightly hoping that Morris wouldn’t get hurt. He spent the majority of 2020 healthy and missed matches mainly due to international duty.

That ACL tear is in the rearview mirror for Morris. It’s hard to imagine a better season from the U.S. men’s national team forward. However, it’s possible. Morris and Ruidíaz are teammates first and foremost, but there is certainly competition of who can score the most goals. Morris can top Ruidíaz in 2020 if he kicks it up a notch.

Ruidíaz could very well retain that top spot, too. Coming to Seattle has revitalized Ruidíaz, who also finished in 2018 as the leading scorer, despite only arriving in July. Also, the offensive core will be boosted when Will Bruin makes his return from his own ACL injury.

João Paulo can be a boost in the midfield and find those forwards for countless assists. And, never rule out Lodeiro, one of the Sounders captains and the assist leader in 2018 and 2019.

Will this be Gustav Svensson’s year?

Gustav Svensson might not be a household name around MLS, but he sure is a household name in Seattle. This can be the year, though, that many MLS teams turn their eyes at the Swedish international. Svensson is entering his fourth season in Seattle. He can very well hit the 100 appearance mark for the club this season, too.

Right now, Svensson has 78 regular-season appearances for the Sounders. Add in his post-season experience and Svensson has 89 Sounders appearances. Svensson is usually a defensive-minded midfielder. There was a time even last year when Schmetzer had to slot him with Kim as a centerback.

Svensson is a versatile player. In his early years in Seattle, Svensson accumulated four assists in 2017. However, the last two seasons have combined for only two assists. He scored once in the post-season last year, but did not record a tally in the regular season.

Svensson isn’t going to find as many goals as Lodeiro. They aren’t the same midfielders; Lodeiro is a more offensive-minded midfielder, while Svensson helps to anchor the back. However, he can be the type of secret weapon Seattle needs. Slot him a little higher on set piece plays, just to see what he can do.

Will Seattle keep their playoff streak alive?

Ever since the club’s creation, the Sounders have been in the playoffs. Will that streak continue in 2020? There’s no doubt and argument that Seattle lost some really good players — Víctor Rodríguez also left to return home to Spain.

However, these new players that Seattle has signed have the potential to turn the club into a powerhouse. Consistency is the biggest issue that has always plagued the Sounders. In 2018, they started the season too slow. In 2019, the Sounders were falling flat at the end of the regular season.

Now, in 2020, the team needs to find a consistency and roll with it. It’s up to Schmetzer to find out who will be the club’s reliable left back and where to implement a talent like Jordy Delem, so he’s not just sitting on the bench.

Seattle will have to answer these questions quicker than other MLS teams. The defending MLS Cup champions will kick off their Concacaf Champions League journey on Feb. 20 against Olimpia, from Honduras. Then, for the second-leg match, Seattle will return home against Olimpia on Feb. 27.

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