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Sounders close book on 2023 season, hint at ‘really impactful’ additions this offseason

Seattle Sounders forward Raúl Ruidíaz, foreground, delivered the game-winning penalty kick in the MLS All-Star game against Liga MX at Allianz Field on Aug. 10, 2022.  (Tribune News Service)
By Jayda Evans Seattle Times

RENTON, Wash. – Pedro de la Vega is one of three “really impactful players” the Sounders could sign within the month, said Craig Waibel, the club’s general manager and chief soccer officer.

Territorio MLS, a bilingual website that covers soccer, first reported the Sounders’ interest in de la Vega. The 22-year-old Argentine is a winger for Lanus, a namesake club based in the Buenos Aires Province. He logged 3,219 minutes and scored six goals with seven assists, through all competitions this year.

“It’s a matter of which one of these players commits to us and convinces us in the end,” Waibel said Wednesday of the prospects. He would only add that one of the other players is South American and another is European.

“But we’re in the end-stage discussion with three different players,” Waibel continued. “They can consider that the pressure they need to make their decision, because those decisions are going to go away real quickly.”

Potential signings were just part of the conversation when Waibel joined Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer and keeper Stefan Frei to dissect the 2023 season with media and look ahead to the future. The session took place at their new headquarters in Renton with the new crest coating the backdrop and displayed on scarves, buttons and nameplates.

Part of what went wrong was the lack of scoring. The Sounders led MLS in defense last season, with Frei collecting a team-record 14 clean sheets to win the league’s Golden Glove award. But of the shutouts, the Sounders also couldn’t manage to knock in one goal, finishing with six 0-0 draws this season.

“What plagued us was just hitting the back of the net,” Waibel said. “There aren’t many games that I can reference where we didn’t have one or two good scoring chances. Not just shots from distance or things like that, but one or two good scoring chances. It’s hard for me to recall games that we didn’t. It’s not hard for me to recall a few games or more than a few games where we didn’t finish.”

The Sounders scored 41 goals last season, and the team finished second in Western Conference standings. But the postseason run ended because of a lack of knocking home two of the eight shots created in a 1-0 semifinal loss to Los Angeles FC at Lumen Field last month.

Sounders forward Jordan Morris led the team with 11 goals in MLS competitions. Striker Raul Ruidiaz, who dealt with hamstring and back injuries, had five – his fewest since signing in 2018.

Schmetzer said Morris and Ruidiaz will compete to play the traditional forward position up top. Ruidiaz, who’s signed through 2024, might feel more pressure as an unproductive designated player who earned $3.2 million this year, according to figures provided by the MLS Players Association.

“Additions are going to be in the attacking half, 100%,” Waibel said of his roster plans. In terms of where that leaves Ruidiaz, Waibel said it’s up to the player.

“The challenge when he was walking out of the building is, ‘Next year needs to be different,’” Waibel said. “He feels the same way. (Ruidiaz) told the coaching staff, he told me he wants it to be different.

“In terms of balancing it on a roster, once a player is signed, there’s no number on them in my mind. I tell the staff this all the time – don’t talk to me about a player’s salary. Once we sign them, they’re one through 30 (the number of allotted players on MLS rosters).”

Waibel is concerned about age. His staff is looking for attackers who are 26 or younger in hopes they will stay with the franchise long term.

The Sounders are historically good at spotting and developing young talent. Brazilian winger Leo Chu, 23, broke into the starting lineup but was outplayed during the postseason.

Homegrown players in midfielder Josh Atencio (21), midfielder Obed Vargas (18) and defender Jackson Ragen (25), a Seattle native, received praise Wednesday for their contributions. Waibel coined a new term for them, calling them “expected performers” instead of developmental players.

“We were one of very few clubs in the league this year to truly have multiple young promising players step up and become what we’re going to start calling ‘expected performers,’ ” Waibel said. “There’s a lot of conversations going on. … We’re looking at multiple positions because the goal is to make sure we have resources to continue to make the team better and, frankly, my goal is to make sure our coaches don’t sleep well at night because they have to make tough decisions on a weekly basis.”

So long, Nico

Free agency opened Wednesday, which exhausted all possibility the Sounders would find a way to entice midfielder Nico Lodeiro to re-sign with the club. He’s officially free to sign anywhere in the world. The Sounders sent him off with a barrage of touching sentiments and flashback clips via social media Tuesday.

Lodeiro signed in 2016 and immediately established the Sounders as an MLS power. He led the club to its first league championship that year, winning another in 2019 and the CONCACAF Champions League title in 2022. Lodeiro is the Sounders’ all-time leader in assists with 95, through all competitions.

The Uruguayan’s departure frees up an international and designated player spot. In addition to looking for players via free agency, the Sounders can add through the MLS SuperDraft on Tuesday.

Schmetzer said his team has dispersed and has offseason workout plans. They’ll reconvene around mid-January and travel to Spain for part of their preseason training camp.

While the new headquarters – Sounders FC Center at Longacres – has the main field and one with artificial turf installed, the team likely won’t officially move in until mid-February, according to Waibel, as some areas are still under construction. Other staff are working in the offices.

MLS is expected to release its schedule next week. The Sounders will likely open on the road because of plans to resurface the turf at Lumen following the Seahawks season.