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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Analysis: After disappointing season, where do the Sounders go from here?

Oct. 15, 2022 Updated Sat., Oct. 15, 2022 at 4:45 p.m.

The Seattle Sounders’ Alex Roldan (16) high fives Yeimar Gomez (28) during the first half as the Sounders take on the Portland Timbers in an MLS regular-season match at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon, on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022.  (Tribune News Service)
The Seattle Sounders’ Alex Roldan (16) high fives Yeimar Gomez (28) during the first half as the Sounders take on the Portland Timbers in an MLS regular-season match at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon, on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022. (Tribune News Service)
By Jayda Evans Seattle Times

TUKWILA, Wash. – Prepare yourself, the Sounders might not make a significant roster move until summer .

It’s a concerning thought considering the team didn’t advance to the MLS postseason this year, snapping a streak of 13 consecutive appearances. Cascadia rivals Vancouver and Portland also failing to secure a berth means for the first time since 2015, no team from the Pacific Northwest will represent the league’s Western Conference at MLS Cup in November.

Garth Lagerwey, Sounders general manager and president of soccer, mentioned throughout the 2022 season the club didn’t have to make any moves because the majority of the roster is signed through 2023, and sort of can’t because of salary-cap restrictions.

He first referred to this in February as a “championship window” where the Sounders could afford the current roster construction for three years.

“On paper, you can go boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and say, ‘That looks pretty good,’” Lagerwey said.

And it still does, which might be an issue when it comes to evaluating player needs to not just get the Sounders back into the playoffs but vying for the championship as the club has done in four of the past seven years, winning in 2016 and 2019.

The biggest problem is expected to be fixed when Seattle reunites for training camp in January – defensive midfielder Joao Paulo will be rehabilitated from a torn ACL. Obed Vargas, the promising teenage backup, should also be recovered from a lower-back injury.

The pair helped the Sounders become the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Championship league title in May.

Joao Paulo suffered his injury during the title match, Vargas slotting in and helping the Sounders move above the MLS playoff line before suffering his injury in June.

Vargas’ last match was a draw against Los Angeles FC, putting Seattle’s record at 6-6-2 in MLS competitions. The team went 6-11-3 thereafter, also withstanding injuries to striker Raul Ruidiaz (hamstring/ankle) and midfielder Cristian Roldan (sports hernia).

With those players back, why not let it ride? The roster created history and will have three months to prepare for the 2023 slate.

But the 2023 season will be even more grueling with FIFA Club World Cup and the monthlong Leagues Cup competitions added to the expected 34-game MLS season and minimum one U.S. Open Cup match. If Seattle were to reach the title game of each competition, it’s a 54-game schedule running February to December 2023, although the Club World Cup format and dates haven’t been set.

Seattle played 43 matches this season. Eight were the CCL run and one Open Cup game.

Experience matters, and the current roster knows the emotional and physical toll, especially the travel, it will take to be successful with that amount of games.

With a healthy Joao Paulo, it’s easy to imagine the Sounders lifting more than one trophy.

Lagerwey will likely keep the current lineup through the Club World Cup, they did earn the historic honor.

Then age should be a consideration in shaking the roster up for long-term success.

Co-captain Nico Lodeiro returned from knee surgeries in 2021 to lead the club in assists (11) and rank second in goals (seven) through MLS competitions. He’ll be 34 in March.

Co-captain Stefan Frei returned from a 2021 knee/blood clot injury and was solid in goal this year. He’ll be 37 in April, yet Stefan Cleveland, 28, is a talented backup in goal.

Ruidiaz, 32, hasn’t been able to close out the past two seasons due to injuries. And while Fredy Montero’s scoring ability is uncanny, the 35-year-old is getting to the later stages of his career.

Sounders forward Jordan Morris, who’ll turn 28 this month, is the attacker who should be leading the club in goals. He returned from a torn ACL in 2021 to bag seven with four assists in 29 appearances this season. Too often he wasn’t used effectively in must-win games.

Joao Paulo’s return will free up Albert Rusnak, who played well on the left wing with Morris on the right. Rusnak is best in the midfield, netting 11 goals with 11 assists in that position with Real Salt Lake in 2021, but injuries kept Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer from exploiting Rusnak’s strengths.

What this historic season showed is the Sounders’ lack of depth. Reserve forward Will Bruin, who’ll turn 33 this month, wasn’t as productive as hoped. Utility midfielder Kelyn Rowe, 30, is an asset, yet the need for another skilled fullback was glaring. Ethan Dobbelaere did have an impressive start on the right wing in a draw against FC Cincinnati in September, but another rising talent could help.

Seattle’s designated player positions are full with Rusnak, Lodeiro and Ruidiaz. Brazilian forward Leo Chu is the U-22 Initiative player, so there isn’t any creative maneuvering to find cap space there.

Unless Lagerwey sacrifices Morris in a blockbuster deal for an impact defender, the other way to generate money to acquire an elite addition is if left back Nouhou not only makes his Cameroon national team World Cup roster but also performs so well he can be loaned to a European club.

The same goes for center back Xavier Arreaga (Ecuador), but he’s an even bigger long shot.

Realistically, it’s best to prepare for a quiet offseason. For nearly six months, Sounders fans have wished for Joao Paulo. It should be known by summer if his return makes this roster magical again.

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