TUKWILA — The Sounders starting backline has changed from game-to-game for the past few weeks, largely due to injuries. In the past seven MLS games, Seattle’s had four unique starting lineups on defense.
What’s remained consistent, though, is the defense’s performance. The unit has only allowed four goals in the same seven-match period. It has only conceded 17 goals during MLS play this year, tied with FC Dallas and Los Angeles FC for the second-fewest in the Western Conference.
“The backline has put the work in, defending is hard work sometimes,” head coach Brian Schmetzer said after Tuesday’s practice. “They’re understanding our tactics, when to press, why they’re pressing (and) who they’re pressing against. So overall, I think it’s just good team-defending.”
Recently, starting center back Yeimar Gomez Andrade missed most of June with a hamstring injury (he also missed six matches earlier in the year due to a high ankle sprain). Right back Alex Roldan missed the Sounders’ game against Colorado FC on May 22 after receiving a red card in the previous game. And now, starting center back Xavier Arreaga will miss 2-3 weeks after suffering an apparent leg injury against LAFC on June 24.
But Seattle’s had the depth on defense to stay consistent through it all.
Arreaga’s injury made way for youngster Jackson Ragen, who’s playing his first MLS season this year after getting called up from the Sounders’ second team, the Tacoma Defiance. Alongside center back Yeimar, who returned from injury in the Sounders’ 3-0 thrashing of Sporting KC on Saturday, Nouhou and Roldan should join Ragen to round out the Sounders’ defensive lineup for Wednesday’s midweek home contest against Montreal FC.
“I always have a sense of pride within the team, the franchise, the group, we’ve always been a pretty good defending team. I think defense wins championships,” Schmetzer said after the Sporting KC game. “The guys have bought in that we defend well, this is our scheme, this is how we do it, and they go and execute every week.”
Most of the backline has experience playing next to one another over the years, though. Nouhou has been a staple in the Sounders’ starting lineup since 2018. Arreaga has been a regular in the lineup since 2019, Yeimar since 2020 and Roldan since 2021. Ragen is the only newcomer, with his first MLS start coming this March against Real Salt Lake.
Having those experienced players around helps Ragen, the 23-year-old defender said after Tuesday’s practice. He still gets nervous during games, albeit not as much as his first few MLS matches. The more experienced defenders help Ragen stay focused for a full 90 minutes to avoid lapses in concentration and mistakes.
Schmetzer said Defiance coach Wade Webber helped Ragen “find his footing” last year. Then in the preseason, Ragen just “skyrocketed,” Schmetzer said.
Still, Schmetzer challenges Ragen, who’s 6-foot-6, to improve in the air. Schmetzer thinks Ragen can be like former Sounders center back Chad Marshall, who scored 31 career MLS goals, most of which were headers. Playing in the U.S.’s top league will also help Ragen improve his defending because he’ll face a lot of different forwards, Schmetzer explained.
“He’s done really well,” the head coach said.
Against Sporting KC, Ragen showed patience when he passed the ball back and forth with Nouhou before unleashing a precise longball to Roldan. Ragen’s vision to switch the ball across the field eventually led to Seattle’s eighth-minute goal via Will Bruin.
“Injuries are not good for the team because we need everyone, but Jackson stepped up (and) showed he can play … that’s a very good team,” Nouhou said when asked about Ragen replacing the injured Arreaga.
Ragen explained that despite the lineup shifts, it’s important for the Sounders’ backline to continue moving up and down the field as a singular unit. Leaving gaps makes it easier for opponents to penetrate, so it’s better to be compact, he said.
For the most part, the lineup changes haven’t affected how the Sounders practice or prepare for games. Nouhou said he’s comfortable playing both left center back and left back, though he admitted that he over-adjusted on the goal he conceded against LAFC, a moment he’s since learned from.
“That’s why we’re professionals — Jackson (Ragen), Yeimar, Alex Roldan, it doesn’t matter who’s going to step onto the pitch, everybody’s a good player, they do a very good job,” Nouhou said on Tuesday.
The Sounders’ defenders gel well with one another because the fundamentals of defending remain the same.
“Not much changes when the personnel changes, because we have a good system,” Ragen said. “It’s been pretty easy.”
The Sounders frequently rely on a strategy where they send their outside backs, Roldan and Nouhou, higher up the field along the flanks. Oftentimes, those two are the ones crossing balls into the 18-yard box.
Ragen says that’s the style Seattle plays with, regardless of personnel (or injuries). Nouhou and Roldan rarely go upfield at the same time, but sending even one defender upfield can leave the two center backs more exposed to a potential counterattack.
On Saturday against Sporting KC, Seattle was without Arreaga, one of their most reliable defenders.
Yet the fact that they continued to release Roldan and Nouhou upfield speaks to just how much confidence and trust they have in Arreaga’s young replacement, Ragen. And it speaks to how much confidence they have in their backline as a whole, a unit that’s shined over the past few weeks.