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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Analysis: Three questions for the Sounders entering a crucial offseason

Seattle Sounders midfielder Alex Roldan shoots against Los Angeles FC midfielder Timothy Tillman #11 at Lumen Field on November 26, 2023 in Seattle, Washington.  (Getty Images)
By Jayda Evans Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Between the expected departure of captain Nico Lodeiro and celebrations for the club’s 50th anniversary, the Seattle Sounders are transitioning to a new era. It’s perfect timing for a restructuring of the roster.

The club will announce final player contract decisions within the week, and the MLS SuperDraft is slated for Dec. 19, which will give a clue to how the team will look in 2024. But it’s likely to continue to evolve until next fall, unlike this season, when Sounders general manager Craig Waibel made one significant move (signed forward Heber) aside from in-house transactions.

Here are three topics that should be addressed this offseason:

You only have one job

Los Angeles FC defender Giorgio Chiellini jabbed Seattle before the sides met in the Western Conference semifinals Sunday. In complimenting the veteran roster, depth and rising youth, he surmised “maybe (the Sounders) have less quality and less unpredictable moments” on offense.

As predicted, one simple stat is a microcosm for Seattle’s season: 8-2.

LAFC conceded possession of the ball, giving the Sounders every chance to equalize and possibly win the playoff matchup. But of the 16 shots on goal that Seattle took, eight were on target and zero found their way past keeper Maxime Crepeau, who had seven saves in collecting the clean sheet.

Denis Bouanga had two looks and knocked in one to send LAFC on to the conference final with a 1-0 win at Lumen Field.

Travel back to the Sounders’ early postseason exit in 2021 against Real Salt Lake and the scenario is the same. RSL conceded possession, withstanding Seattle’s 21 shots at goal to their zero, finishing 120 minutes of play in a goalless deadlock. Salt Lake advanced to the conference semifinals on penalty kicks.

The Sounders can’t score when it counts. And Seattle hasn’t netted goals consistently the past two years, totaling 53 in 2021, but getting upset in the playoffs. The Sounders finished this regular season with 41 goals on 30.1% shooting.

A solution to being unable to finish in the final third needs to be found.

Most hoped Raul Ruidiaz, who’s signed through next season, was the answer. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer even modified the Peruvian international’s training schedule in an effort to keep him healthy. Ruidiaz is second to striker Fredy Montero in all-time goals for the Sounders (73) but hasn’t scored since September.

The span of 168 minutes includes Ruidiaz playing as a substitute the past five matches and missing four games due to a back injury. The six-year MLS veteran just isn’t lethal anymore, and it’s doubtful he’ll return to the 2021 form where he tied a club record with 17 regular-season goals.

Lodeiro was the highest-paid player on the roster this season at $3.5 million guaranteed, according to figures provided by the MLS Players Association. The Sounders should double that and get the best international striker on the planet who’s willing to play in Seattle.

Sounders forward Jordan Morris, who signed a five-year deal last winter, could carry the team through a season and is an asset in the postseason. But to keep up with LAFC, the Sounders need creativity and consistency up top.

Did Lodeiro do enough?

Lodeiro is the biggest name on the MLS free-agency list. Schmetzer moved the team’s style of play from running through their playmaker, which ultimately had Lodeiro playing as a substitute despite missing one match due to injury – the most appearances since 2017.

The Uruguayan linked with Schmetzer in 2016 to establish the Sounders as an MLS power. During the club’s 19-match home unbeaten streak in the postseason, the pair were coach and captain for 15. Lodeiro was also at the heart of two MLS Cup titles and the historic CONCACAF Champions League win. He’s the club’s all-time leader in assists (95), and his 11 postseason assists lead MLS among active players.

“I’m not thinking about my legacy,” Lodeiro said in what felt like a farewell interview after Sunday’s loss. “But I feel very good, very satisfied because separate from the trophies and the titles and everything, more important for me is that people like me as a person and I tried to do my best every time on the field and outside the field in the city.

“From the first moment that I came here, I felt a good relationship and chemistry with the people from Seattle and the media, too. For me, the more important (thing) is my legacy as a person. I feel satisfied with my time here in Seattle and I hope you feel the same too.”

It will be interesting to see if Lodeiro, like Ozzie Alonso, makes a return to Seattle as an opposing player. He had 10 assists during the regular season and a secondary one as a substitute in Game 1 of the opening-round playoff series against FC Dallas.

The numbers say Lodeiro can still contribute, but he just didn’t fit into Schmetzer’s overall tactics to make a postseason run.

It’s doubtful Waibel convinces Lodeiro to stay and play off the bench next year, so where the maestro lands is worth tracking.

“I want to compete because it’s in my DNA,” said Lodeiro, whose contract expires at the end of December. “I’m sad now because we lost, my goal was to finish winning another MLS Cup … It’s time to see what happens in the future here (in MLS) or another country, I don’t know. But my contract with Seattle is finished and it’s time to listen.”

Is it time for a you-know-what?

If reports are true and Sounders keeper Stefan Frei did re-sign for two more years, the Sounders’ starting lineup next year might have 10 of the 11 starters used this postseason.

Brazilian winger Leo Chu is a question mark. He showed improvement and had great chemistry with Morris, but his lack of playoff experience showed.

So, is 2024 a rebuild? The word is typically a buzzkill for marketing, which is basking in the rave reviews and sales of the new branding merchandise.

The reality is the Sounders had multiple streaks end the past few years. They didn’t reach the playoffs last year – a first since the club joined MLS in 2009 – and snapped a 19-match unbeaten playoff streak at home Sunday. The team also hasn’t reached the MLS Cup final since 2020.

Schmetzer said the organization wants to remain at the top of the West. That means the offseason is about getting a player who will boost them back there immediately and make a deep playoff run. It’s possible, considering the team’s defensive core and that Waibel has locked in midfielder Cristian Roldan for another five years.

Seattle was 5-2-3 with Roldan in the starting lineup. He missed the bulk of the season due to two concussions and a call-up by the U.S. men’s national team.

Waibel’s actions in his second season at the helm of player decisions will provide the verb for next season’s outlook.