Nearly three months since their last season ended with a disappointing MLS Cup defeat, the Sounders officially launched their 2021 campaign with the start of training camp Monday. Players reported last week to undergo testing and mandatory COVID-19 protocols in order to immediately begin on-field work at Starfire Sports in Tukwila.
MLS will still play amid the coronavirus pandemic, but this year, testing, social distancing, masks, and closed-door sessions are what’s normal.
Seattle will practice at Starfire through the month and play two exhibition games at the facility against USL Championship side Tacoma Defiance (March 25) and Portland Timbers (March 30).
“We feel excited,” said Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan. “It’s a big year for us. We need to bounce back from a tough MLS Cup loss. We’re putting our best foot forward and looking forward to the rest of the year and hopefully a somewhat normal year.”
So what’s changed besides a few roster additions and a new blonde hairdo for center back Xavier Arreaga? And what are the storylines to monitor as the club prepares for a new season without hometown star Jordan Morris?
Here are three keys to track …
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said Morris was at training camp Monday, a visual reminder of what will have to be replaced this season. Morris injured his left knee last month while playing on loan with Swansea City A.F.C. in Wales.
The injury doesn’t impact the Sounders’ 2021 season because he already was expected to be unavailable due to play overseas and with the U.S. men’s national team. How he’s replaced in the lineup on the left wing remains a question the Sounders have yet to address and a player pickup during the next transfer window is unlikely due to the club not having much room under the salary cap.
One option could have the Sounders playing with new wingers on the left and right, if Roldan is shuffled to a new spot in the starting lineup. He was a good balance on the right with Morris on the left.
Roldan had five assists last season. Morris, who was named to MLS’s Best XI, scored 10 regular-season goals with a career-high eight assists last year.
“(Jordan) happened to be making a cameo appearance today,” Schmetzer said of Morris, who was using crutches and is slated to undergo surgery in California but more details were not provided. “It was great to see him with his teammates. It just adds a good vibe to the training session, everybody gets to say hello. It’s an unfortunate injury to one of our top players so a priority … is figuring out a system to play.”
Confidence is a given if Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz, both reigning Best XI honorees, are among the returning players. But in addition to Morris, the Sounders lost solid veteran starters in right back Kelvin Leerdam and defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson, whose contracts were not renewed.
What system the Sounders play in pursuit of their league-record 13th consecutive playoff berth likely will depend on how three bubble players perform during the preseason.
Alex Roldan had a breakout season last year at right back, playing well enough to start the club’s four postseason matches. But does he retain the spot?
New signee Kelyn Rowe, a league veteran who’s regarded as a utility player, is aiming to show he should be considered as a starter. Rowe, a Federal Way product, can play on the wings or up top.
Lastly, forward Will Bruin thought he earned starter minutes last season, his first since a season-ending knee injury in 2019. His chemistry with Ruidiaz could have the Sounders looking at starting two forwards up top.
There are plenty of on-field questions but Cristian Roldan said one aspect will remain — the Sounders cultivating a positive work environment. Part of that can be attributed to six players either being from Western Washington or alumni of the University of Washington or Seattle University.
“We’re going to have a really good locker room this year,” Roldan said. “We have a lot of guys who are from the area as well as guys who’ve been in the league for a long time. It’s going to be difficult to replace the guys that left but we’re doing everything right to put us in a really good spot for the season.”
MLS has yet to release its 2021 schedule but the season will kick off April 17.