There’s an unfortunate familiarity to the Sounders FC’s early MLS postseason exit.
Despite pelting Real Salt Lake keeper David Ochoa through 120 minutes of an opening round playoff match last week at Lumen Field, the Sounders couldn’t puncture the goal line. The match was decided by penalty kicks, Seattle losing 6-5 in the shootout.
Like in 2014 and 2018, a ridiculously talented roster couldn’t complete the purpose of its assembly — winning the league championship. Seattle’s loss to RSL was the first time since 2010 that the club failed to win at least one postseason game.
Mirroring 2018, when Clint Dempsey retired midseason due to health complications, this season’s Rave Green had to counter multiple injuries through the final run of the schedule. The 2014 Sounders, with artisan scorers Dempsey and Oba Martins, won the Supporters’ Shield but lost in the Western Conference finals.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer notes his club’s 2016 and 2019 championships were born of struggles the previous seasons. Here are three questions that need answering for Seattle to have a similar fate in 2022:
Where’s the priority?
Trying to win every game is a respectable mantra the Sounders repeat often, but the 2022 schedule will be overstuffed with CONCACAF Champions League, Leagues Cup and U.S. Open Cup tournaments, the latter resuming in March after being canceled the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.
MLS released the home openers for its teams — the Sounders host Nashville FC on Feb. 27 at Lumen Field — and plans to not have teams play more than four midweek games. Seattle had 11 this season.
The shift is to wrap in time for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. MLS will hold its championship Nov. 5, 2022, more than a week before players must be released for call-ups.
A deep roster is essential simply because of injuries. The Sounders have had deep, talented rosters the past three seasons in efforts to go all-in for every tournament. Perhaps it’s time for more focus on winning their league’s title?
Seattle will have to manage international call-ups, and the strain of those players gunning for World Cup roster spots, Leagues Cup titles and the MLS playoffs was evident this year. If it’s clear the first-choice players will aim for the league and CCL titles, it could help for the long-term health.
Does everyone stay?
Seattle’s playoff loss is an example of why you don’t talk about roster moves before the conclusion of the season.
Garth Lagerwey, the Sounders general manager and president of soccer, said during an interview with KJR this month that he expects “to have the option to return virtually everybody on this team.”
“The conclusions you make about the team are going to be based on those things, too,” Lagerwey said of the postseason in prefacing his statements but later added, “I would fully anticipate us having 25 or more players signed maybe at the beginning of preseason depending on how some things go in terms of conversations with some guys.”
The MLS Players Association released the free-agency eligible players for the first time. MLSPA won a massive change during negotiations for the collective bargaining agreement last winter, bumping the number of those who qualify up to 127 players this offseason — a 149% increase.
Seattle had nine players listed, including three who are out of contract in goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland, defender Shane O’Neill and forward Will Bruin. The latter is likely to return due to a knee injury cutting his 2021 season short.
Sounders forward Jordan Morris is also named as he enters the first of two option seasons. He worked his way back from an ACL tear, making his first start of the year against RSL
Even though the Sounders should try to keep Cleveland after how he filled in for mainstay Stefan Frei (knee), Cleveland will likely leave for more pay and a promise to start.
Federal Way’s Kelyn Rowe and club original Fredy Montero were essential to Seattle wading through a congested season and player absences — both starting the postseason match due to injuries. Montero made a PK that helped the Sounders secure the No. 2 seed in the postseason. Rowe missed a PK that could’ve defeated RSL.
How much does that weigh on their future in Seattle?
“My dream is to be playing a final with the Sounders,” Montero said this month in contemplating his future in Seattle. The club’s all-time leading scorer returned after nearly a decade playing around the globe.
“I’m going to do my best to keep pushing harder to be a part of this club,” Montero continued. “This club has very good players. If you’re not sharp enough, anyone can take your position.”
What does Ruidiaz want?
Seriously. Ask striker Raul Ruidiaz what he wants and give it to him.
Seattle picked up the option on the Peruvian’s contract, meaning negotiations for an extension are underway. Ruidiaz, 31, suffered a hamstring injury late in the season. If not for injury, the Sounders would likely still be in the playoffs.
The Sounders were unbeaten when Ruidiaz scored during the regular season (17 goals), and when teamed with a healthy Morris and midfielder Nico Lodeiro in 2020, the club advanced to MLS Cup. So, what will it take to keep him in Seattle?