Where many saw chasms, pits and cracks forming within the Sounders FC roster, coach Brian Schmetzer saw opportunity.
“We’ve lost players before and we’ve survived,” Schmetzer said of an offseason that began with decisions to not renew the contracts of midfielder Joevin Jones and defenders Gustav Svensson and Kelvin Leerdam. Jones helped the Sounders win four Western Conference championships and two MLS Cup titles while Svensson and Leerdam were key factors for three conference titles and one championship.
The loss of two pillars of the Sounders organization followed. Chris Henderson, the team’s vice president of soccer and sporting director since 2008, took a similar position with Inter Miami CF in January. In February, forward Jordan Morris suffered a season-ending knee injury while on loan in Europe. The Mercer Island native signed with the club in 2016 and was named to his first MLS Best XI team last season.
Before the 2021 MLS schedule was even released, the Sounders were without four integral starters and a scout who helped shape the club from the beginning. Basically the biggest drop in talent in the club’s history.
“We’ve survived,” Schmetzer repeated when asked how he’d address the roster gaps. “I wouldn’t take necessarily so much stock in the changing of X player or Y player. I would say the change in formation is kind of the story here.”
Instead of fretting about how to replace players, Schmetzer has opted to plaster over the holes with a completely new look. The Sounders will unveil a two-forward lineup when they kickoff the 2021 season with a home match against the Minnesota United FC at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Lumen Field.
The formation isn’t innovative. Plenty of MLS teams play two forwards up top. But since Schmetzer took over as coach in 2016, he’s started matches with a formation that has one forward. That player has been Raul Ruidiaz since 2018, the striker leading the Sounders in goals scored the past three years.
And the style of play has been successful. Schmetzer’s teams are a perfect 4-0 in conference championship matches and he has a MLS-best playoff winning percentage with a 15-4-2 overall record.
“There’s something to be said about stability and consistency,” Schmetzer said. “There will be some bumps in the road with any sort of new formation, and we’re prepared for that. It’s not like we’re going to give it up after the first bad result. There’s a little bit of give and take. … It is a little bit of a jump.”
The Sounders’ technical staff has flirted with the idea of a formation change the past two years, especially after they got shutout 3-0 by the Columbus Crew SC in the MLS Cup final last December.
The missing roster pieces simply revealed this season as the perfect time for a change.
In order to have a two-forward system, you have to have two quality forwards. The Sounders have three in Ruidiaz, Will Bruin and Fredy Montero. The latter is a club original who returned in March as a bargain free-agent signing after nearly a decade playing for clubs across the globe and most recently the Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
Montero, the team’s all-time leading goal scorer (60), is expected to be the reserve forward. That may change to open the season because Ruidiaz missed three weeks of training camp because of a delay in procuring his U.S. green card.
“It’s tricky because as a soccer player, you always want to play,” Montero said. “For me coming back to the Sounders, it’s more than that. It’s not about the game anymore. It’s more about helping and being involved in the day-to-day training. … Before it was just about me. I wanted to score, I wanted to be the No. 1 leader in assists and I wanted everything for me. Now I know what it requires just to be in a team. This organization is about winning, so that’s what I want to do with the team, help them continue to keep winning.”
Schmetzer said Ruidiaz assured him of his approval of the formation change immediately after arriving from Peru earlier this month. In-game changes last season often had Ruidiaz, who’s 5 foot 7, play alongside Bruin, who’s 6-2. The latter would take on bigger center backs and allow Ruidiaz to slip into pockets of an opponent’s defense to craft scores.
The pairing worked so well that Schmetzer mentioned switching the formation last fall. Bruin, who returned from a 2019 season-ending knee injury, said he was excited when the team was told during the first meeting of training camp in March that there will be a lineup shift.
Only instead of working on it with Ruidiaz, Bruin has been paired with Montero, the duo quickly cultivating a chemistry that’s resulted in scores for both during preseason matches.
“As forwards, you can tell at the beginning if it’s going to be an easy relationship or something you’ve got to work on spacing-wise,” Bruin said. “Fredy and I play off each other very well. It comes natural. We don’t really pop up in the same spots at the same time, so that’s been really good.”
The formation switch also requires solid defending and attacking wings. That’s where left back Brad Smith and defender Nouhou should shine with their quick pace. Schmetzer also has quality center backs to pull from in Xavier Arreaga, Yeimar Gómez Andrade and Shane O’Neill.
Eyes are on Yeimar, who made his MLS debut last season. But all will have to stay sharp and cover more ground with the new formation.
“Nouhou is looking really good in that position,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “It suits him extremely well, especially when we’re in the attack. He can be a little bit more aggressive on the press and also his recovery is the best on the team. His ability to recover the ball for us and play more defensive and let Brad do a lot of the work offensively suits both of them. I expect Nouhou to have a big year.”
The biggest question is how long will Schmetzer stick with the formation change if it flops to open the season? Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sounders didn’t travel to play a variety of preseason opponents and one match was canceled due to safety concerns.
Intrasquad scrimmages and matches against USL Championship sides aren’t the best indicators of how a new look is progressing. The Sounders did face their Cascadia rival Portland Timbers. But those chippy matches were about 75 minutes and early in preseason training.
It may take half the season to know if change is good for Schmetzer and the Sounders. The schedule is also an obstacle as the club has multiple eight-day spans where they’ll play three matches. The club will also have to manage international call-ups.
But the team said it won’t allow one thing to change — winning. The Sounders are aiming to advance to the postseason for an MLS-record 13th consecutive season. The MLS Cup appearance last year was the club’s fourth in the past five seasons.
“There might be times when just through necessity, personnel, tactical changes, we play (a one-forward formation) for some games,” Schmetzer said. “We’ll see what shakes out. I’m not going to get excited about it until later in the year when it really comes time to make some hard choices of what we’re going to commit to.”