The final whistle blew and Xavier Arreaga untucked his Sounders FC jersey and dropped to his knees in Lumen Field’s north penalty box. Moments earlier the center back helped Seattle defeat Los Angeles FC 2-0, scoring his first MLS goal.
With arms raised and eyes closed, Arreaga later said he was testifying.
“There were hard moments,” Arreaga said, as translated from Spanish, of his journey as a rising defender in his native Ecuador to playing in MLS. “In some matches, there were some errors. There were others also where I played really well.
“But no matter what, I always kept my conviction. I trusted God. I’m a man of faith, a man of conviction and those moments that test your faith only make you stronger. I set my mind to keep working, giving it my best, giving it all during practice and knowing that the opportunities would come.”
Arreaga, 26, was signed in May 2019 to add depth to an aging defensive back line. Chris Henderson, the club’s former vice president and sporting director, said at the time that Arreaga’s on-field leadership despite his young age initially caught his eye when scouting the player with Ecuadorian powerhouse Barcelona SC.
Plans to slowly integrate Arreaga into the Sounders’ rotation were accelerated when two weeks after his signing, veteran center back Chad Marshall abruptly retired due to chronic knee injuries. Arreaga’s debut was 52 minutes as a substitute in a loss at Sporting Kansas City on May 26, 2019, and the following match he started, the Sounders losing at FC Dallas.
Although his performance was inconsistent, by fall Arreaga was a frequent contributor who started the Sounders’ playoff win against LAFC for the Western Conference championship. The Sounders advanced to win the MLS Cup, capping a whirlwind rookie season for Arreaga. A start to an MLS career in the U.S. that seemingly stayed unpredictable due to the global pandemic and civil uprising in 2020.
For Arreaga, the year ended with a blessing in the birth of his first child. He missed the Sounders’ league title match to witness the birth in Seattle.
This season Arreaga is part of a defense that hasn’t conceded a goal in the run of play through seven matches. The Sounders (5-0-2), who are off to their best start in franchise history, host the expansion side Austin FC on Sunday at Lumen Field.
“It speaks to having a very good number of players in defense,” Arreaga said. “Players with great capacity to adapt to the formation that our coach (Brian Schmetzer) established for this year.
“We visualized and set our minds for this year to be a team that is very hard to beat. We know to accomplish that, we need to start giving that security, that assurance all the way from the back. (Because) we know that we can attack very well. We have players in the front that at any moment can create a difference and change a match.”
Schmetzer’s formation change does highlight a switch to a two-forward set up top. Striker Raul Ruidiaz is second in the league with six goals while the Sounders lead MLS with 14 scores.
The success of the new look is also dependent on the play of the three center backs. Sounders assistant coach Djimi Traore works with the defense to develop the performance of Nouhou, Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Shane O’Neill and Arreaga.
O’Neill and Arreaga are often in the central position.
“Nouhou is getting all the accolades and rave reviews about how the change in our formation helped him, Brad Smith and Alex Roldan,” Schmetzer said. “There’s a lot of reasons why this formation works. But sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle (that) Xavi and Shane (O’Neill) are good center backs. They’re the beneficiary, if they’re playing in that central position with the three center backs, of having Nouhou cover for them defensively and having Yeimar cover on the opposite side. If you look at Xavi, he’s pretty good with his passing and stuff like that.”
Part of Arreaga’s adjustment to MLS was the amount of parity found in the league. The Sounders have reached the postseason every year since their inaugural season in 2009 and have played in four of the past five MLS Cup finals, but the club has only won the Supporters’ Shield once and a single outcome often made the difference in positioning for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Ecuador’s Barcelona is one of about four perennial favorites in the 16-team Liga Pro.
Defenders scoring is also a rarity in MLS. Joao Paulo’s precise aim on a corner kick in the 57th minute against LAFC provided the assist for Arreaga’s header. In four seasons for Barcelona, the defender bagged eight goals.
Schmetzer rightfully called Arreaga’s score a bonus. It’s Arreaga’s defending that’s a testament to how hard he’s willing to work to succeed in MLS.
“One of my favorite stats is the duels won, but this stat might surpass that one,” Schmetzer said. “No goals in the run of play after seven games is really impressive. That shows that the team has bought in. They know their defensive responsibilities.”