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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Analysis: Breaking down the Sounders roster early in training camp

Seattle Sounders defender Jackson Ragen clears the ball against the Portland Timbers on April 15 at Providence Park in Portland.  (Tribune News Service)
By Jayda Evans Seattle Times

TUKWILA, Wash. – The Sounders admittedly struggled pocketing goals the past two seasons, so naturally the club’s biggest offseason acquisitions are … defenders.

OK. Highly touted Argentine winger Pedro de la Vega is expected at camp by Tuesday, according to Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer. Yet, the anticipated signing still hasn’t been announced and at 22 years old, de la Vega likely will still need developing.

Is it unrealistic to think the Sounders could’ve competed to sign Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez? Given the price (reported $8 million total package) and opportunity for the UEFA Champions League winner to reunite with Lionel Messi, the answer is a begrudged yes. The former FC Barcelona teammates will headline Inter Miami this season after Suarez signed a one-year deal in December with an option for 2025.

The Sounders opening training camp with Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris as the only available forwards was a surprise. Sounders general manager Craig Waibel signed Braudilio Rodrigues, who scored a single-season-record 17 goals for MLS Next Pro side Tacoma Defiance last year.

It’s more than Ruidiaz (five) and Morris (11) combined. But the goals are against second-division teams, and the Portuguese striker hasn’t reported to camp (visa).

For an offseason that seemed filled with possibilities – and money after the departure of designated player Nico Lodeiro, who earned $3.2 million guaranteed last season – the additions are underwhelming on paper.

“You can sign good players, world-renown players, local players; I don’t care who it is, we just want to win,” Schmetzer said. “If we would’ve signed Suarez, I would’ve been OK. Just kidding, Craig.”

The signings might be hidden gems. The Sounders have true competition throughout the roster – including Morris and Ruidiaz for the starting spot up top.

“That’s something we needed last year,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “When I went down (two concussions), we couldn’t replace that right-mid position. With Nouhou (malaria), we didn’t have a backup left back. Alex (Roldan), we left him out to dry being the only right back.

“Injuries are going to happen, it’s inevitable and we have to be able to fill those positions. These young guys have some talent, we just need to give them experience.”

Here’s a look at the Sounders’ depth chart for players under contract.

Forwards (3)

Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidiaz, Braudilio Rodrigues

Ruidiaz isn’t being modified. Repeat. Ruidiaz, who suffered hamstring and back injuries last season, isn’t being modified at training.

Whether that’s an indicator the Peruvian striker can surpass his MLS-low five goals from last season is debatable. It will help him compete with Morris for the starting role.

Schmetzer said the technical staff is adding “a few wrinkles” to the offensive schemes to generate more goals. Those include possible formation changes along with style. The Sounders tried a two-forward lineup in the past that had mixed results and starting Morris over Ruidiaz didn’t create fireworks during the postseason.

Both are quality players and Schmetzer is praised for his tactical mind, so maybe there’s a fresh look that can create some offensively entertaining soccer.

“Nothing is off the table,” Schmetzer said.

Morris netted 11 goals last season and looks to be the first-choice starter. But the pressure isn’t only on him. Schmetzer would like to have two players in double figures for goal-scoring and three others with at least five for a balanced attack.

Leo Chu (five) and Albert Rusnak (five) rounded out the top goal-scorers last year. The Sounders were gifted three own goals for 41 total.

Midfielders (11)

Joao Paulo, Cristian Roldan, Albert Rusnak, Leo Chu, Josh Atencio, Obed Vargas, Reed Baker-Whiting, Danny Leyva, Paul Rothrock, Dylan Teves, Sota Kitahara

Cristian Roldan is fully recovered from suffering two concussions last season. The former University of Washington star is entering his 10th MLS season with a familiar uncertainty: Where will he play?

“I feel like we talk about this every year,” Roldan told media after training last week. “It will depend on signings, injuries, what kind of formations we play. For now, that right-mid (winger) spot is the spot I envision myself playing this year. It’s something I need to get better at in certain phases of the game offensively.

“If I have to play in the middle, we’ll figure out a good pairing.”

Wherever he plays, Roldan is a first-choice starter along with Joao Paulo, a former league MVP finalist. The questions are the pairing to best unlock the Sounders offense.

The spotlight will be on Albert Rusnak in a post-Lodeiro Sounders world. Rusnak is a natural attacking midfielder who won the position over Lodeiro when Schmetzer made the bold move to play Chu on the left wing with Morris up top and Roldan on the right.

“It doesn’t add any pressure,” Rusnak said. “(Nico) was a great teammate and now it’s going to be on the players that are going to be in those positions. If it is me for the most part, I’m looking forward and want to be just as successful for the club.”

The intriguing camp debate is how Chu and Reed Baker-Whiting are used.

De la Vega’s pending signing will influence multiple decisions, but Chu earned an opportunity to be a first-choice starter after coupling eight assists with his five goals last season.

Baker-Whiting impressed on the backline with his ability to get forward and create scoring chances with a better touch than Nouhou. But Schmetzer doesn’t expect Baker-Whiting to be available to open the season because of a hamstring injury they don’t want to become a chronic issue.

Atencio, Vargas and Leyva need to continue their development, while Rothrock, Teves and Kitahara are poised for a breakthrough.

Defenders (9)

Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Jackson Ragen, Nouhou, Alex Roldan, Xavier Arreaga, Jonathan Bell, Nathan, Cody Baker, Stuart Hawkins

The Sounders would like to remain stingy defensively. They tied with Nashville SC in allowing a league-fewest 32 goals last season and led with 14 shutouts.

Waibel returned the core and added Jon Bell and Nathan, who are wild cards. Both have shown their versatility in training, but neither played a significant role with their former team last season.

Bell made three appearances (143 minutes) for St. Louis City. Nathan suffered a season-ending ACL injury and didn’t play for the San Jose Earthquakes. Nathan said after a week training with the Sounders that the knee is stronger than before suffering the injury.

There’s a possibility Schmetzer could have the luxury of resting a player because there’s depth to not skip a beat. And there could be lengthy debates about who should make the game-day roster.

“The team is already successful as it is, so I can just add more power to the team,” Bell said. “Whether it’s at center back or left back, I’m just ready to be on that field and make a difference.”

Goalkeepers (3)

Stefan Frei, Jacob Castro, Andrew Thomas

Buy a ticket to the Sounders’ U.S. Open Cup match if you want to see Castro or Thomas appear with the first team. Frei is that dependable.

But it’s Frei’s 11th season with the Sounders. Can he still perform at a league-leading level? If so, the Sounders will challenge for the Western Conference title.