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2017 Western Conference Preview: Seattle Sounders

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We preview the reigning MLS Champs. I wonder how many times we’ll be reminded the Sounders are the MLS Champs this year.

2016 MLS Cup - Seattle Sounders v Toronto FC

The Seattle Sounders and their fans are somewhat insufferable for the rest of MLS and its fans. The rave green, the massive fanbase, the whining about their lack of success in their long eight year history with the league. Soccer fans outside of Washington state are generally irritated by Sounders fans.

Well, crank that s*** up to eleven, because the most insufferable team in MLS won the 2016 the Cup and become exponentially more insufferable. It is virtually assured that we’ll be reminded of this fact over and over and over again, especially on the national ESPN and Fox Sports broadcasts of the Sounders. Argh.

Still, I have a warm place in my heart for Seattle. I was at DSGP when Obafemi Martins did this:

And Dempsey is fun to watch. And Jordan Morris is a tremendous player that USMNT fans have placed some put high hopes upon. Seattle is a great soccer town with great players and great fans and great beer and great gameday experience.

They’re still insufferable.

2016 Record: 14-6-14 (WTL), 48 points, 4th in Western Conference, MLS Cup Champions

2016 Goals For: 44, (15th in MLS)

2016 Goals Against: 43, (7th in MLS)

Key Stat:

Seattle Sounders Record without Nicolas Lodeiro

6-2-12 (WTL*)

Seattle Sounders Record with Nicolas Lodeiro

7-4-0 + 5-0-1 (playoffs)

Total: 12-4-1

Key Additions:

Harry Shipp, Will Bruin

Key Subtractions:

Erik Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, Tyrone Mears

What they have going for them:

Seattle were so bad through the first 20 games of the season that it cost longtime coach Sigi Schmidt his job. They were so bad that MLS pundit Ben Baer gave them “zero chance of making the playoffs”.

Then, their Uruguayan Messiah arrived. Nicolas Lodeiro was only involved in one loss with the Sounders; the meaningless 2-1 away loss to FC Dallas that actually sent Seattle through to the MLS semi-final against the Colorado Rapids. His movement and dribbling changed Seattle’s game completely. His passing acuity was stellar. He averaged 2.55 key passes per 90 minutes in the regular season; which put him just behind the league leaders like Sacha Kljestan (3.26) and Diego Valeri (2.94), but just ahead of midfield wizards like Benny Feilhaber (1.92), Andrea Pirlo (1.92), and Steven Gerrard (1.90). Lodeiro bagged 4 goals as well. Extrapolate his performance over a whole season, and Nico has 9 goals, 9 assists. So, yeah, that’s a DP signing that worked out pretty well.

Seattle had the MLS rookie of the year in Jordan Morris, who poured in 12 goals over the campaign. The 2015 defender of the year Chad Marshall spent the latter half of the season partnered with the physical beast that is Panamanian international Roman Torres. Osvaldo Alonso was the team’s spiritual metronome in midfield. Coach Brian Schmetzer placed second-year man Christian Roldan alongside him and pushed the team into a fairly expeditionary 4-2-3-1, and it clicked.

Stefan Frei is an average-to-above-average goalkeeper. When it counted the most, in the playoffs, he became superhuman:

So Seattle had all the pieces last year. They get all of that back AND will likely have DP attacker Clint Dempsey back after missing the end of 2017 with a heart condition. If Clint has a successful return, added in to all these other elements, Seattle could be damn-near unstoppable.

What’s troubling:

Not much, to be honest. Tyrone Mears was a capable right back and his departure leaves a significant and important spot to fill, but I think veteran Brad Evans will probably be just fine in his place, at least on the defensive side of things. Oniel Fisher is a left back, but maybe he’s the replacement for Mears. We shall see.

Nelson Valdez was terrible at striker in 2016, scoring zero goals through 22 games and 800+ minutes in the regular season before finding the back of the net twice in the playoffs. He may have been replaced by off-season acquisition Will Bruin, who seems to be the striker equivalent of a camel. Over the past two seasons, Bruin will go 5 or 6 games without sniffing the net, and then he’ll score 4 goals in 4 games. It’s weird. With Morris, Lodeiro, and Dempsey, Seattle’s central striker doesn’t need to be a goal machine. Just four or five goals from Bruin or Valdez alongside those other attackers will do just fine.

Depth is a minor issue, but an issue nonetheless. Zach Scott was the regular fill-in at center back while Torres was recovering from a torn ACL. Scott retired in the offseason, so S2 defender Tony Alfaro or 2017 SuperDraft pick Brian Nana-Sinkam, a first rounder from Stanford, may need to step up and contribute in a pinch (Nana-Sinkam needs to make the team, first . In the midfield, the Sounders are probably fine considering they added Harry Shipp from Montreal, and can also get useful minutes from Alvaro Fernandez or Aaron Kovar if need be. If midfield injuries strike Alonso or Lodeiro, there aren’t any strong long-term replacements, but that’s a concern for nearly every MLS team with regards to their top midfield playmaker. Overall, Seattle might be the most complete team in MLS going into 2017.

2017 Forecast

If they can rotate their squad and stay healthy, this team is an odds-on favorite for Supporters Shield, without question. They’ll finish 1st in the West, and could conceivable make it all the way back to MLS Cup. Whether they repeat or not has more to do with health, unforeseen consequences, proper motivation, and a fair amount of luck. It will be quite a challenge for Seattle to join the three MLS clubs that have won back-to-back titles; DC United, Houston Dynamo, and LA Galaxy. But I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they pulled it off. I can only imagine how insufferable they’d be then.

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* In an earlier version, I transposed the win/tie/loss record with win/loss/tie. An important disctinction, thankful noted in the comments. Also, can MLS please stop being the only soccer league in the world that labels its record as WLT, please? It causes me confusion.