Jordan Morris suffering a season-ending knee injury while on loan in Europe last winter took one of the Sounders’ biggest offensive threats out of the equation. There’s still Raul Ruidiaz to contend with and Will Bruin, whose return from a 2019 knee injury was hampered by the starts and stops of the 2020 season due to the pandemic. Ruidiaz was named to the league’s Best XI team after tallying a MLS career-high 12 goals with four assists. The X-factor is the return of Fredy Montero, the club’s all-time leading goal scorer. He developed a fast chemistry with the lineup during training camp and showed his flair in getting the ball into the net. The question is whether his ineffectiveness with the Vancouver Whitecaps FC the past two seasons was an anomaly or trend.
Joao Paulo could step into the spotlight sooner than expected. Nico Lodeiro, who was named to the MLS Best XI team last year, is day-to-day with a minor injury. That leaves Joao Paulo as the Sounders’ top playmaker to open the season. He had five assists in his league debut last year. The Brazilian is also a deft defender when teamed with Cristian Roldan. The duo will get longer runs together as the Sounders switch to a two-forward formation. Also in the mix is Federal Way’s Kelyn Rowe. The free-agent pickup is versatile and has veteran savvy that should boost the Sounders’ ability to control the pace of matches. Rowe has a lot to prove; in the past three seasons he’s played for three teams and combined for just four assists and one goal in 3,377 minutes.
The Sounders have continuity along the backline, which the club hasn’t had in a few seasons. Center back Xavier Arreaga is likely the most motivated of the group. He had an inconsistent 2020 season and missed the playoffs due to quarantining after international play and witnessing the birth of his child. Alex Roldan was a late hit at right fullback, starting the four postseason matches, but was overrun and benched in the title game. Brad Smith could shine at left back in the new formation with his attacking style as could Nouhou in the center back position. Yeimar Gomez Andrade will also be key at center back. He’ll have to be quick in ball recovery to help jump-start the team’s counterattack.
Could this be the season where keeper Stefan Frei isn’t in goal for every Sounders match? It hasn’t happened in two seasons and Frei has only missed three starts in the past five years. He will turn 35 this month and the Sounders will play a grinding schedule so possible backups in Stefan Cleveland and Spencer Richey, who played for the University of Washington, are needed. But the magic of Frei is how he prepares to be one of the most durable players in the league. In 22 regular-season starts last year, Frei had 60 saves and six shutouts, saving 72.3 percent of the shots on goal.
A new lineup formation, compressed MLS schedule and multiple international competitions is a trifecta that begs for backup if the Sounders are to clinch a record 13th consecutive playoff berth. Defenders Shane O’Neill and Jordy Delem have the most experience and are the most reliable. The unknowns are the former academy players who are jockeying for first-team minutes. Danny Leyva, a midfielder, is back after suffering a foot injury last season. Ethan Dobbelaere has shown promise on the wing while midfielder Josh Atencio has played well during training camp. Midfielder Jimmy Medranda, a trade pickup in October 2020, was expected to add depth but is day-to-day with a minor injury.