Slowly but surely, the Seattle Sounders are marching toward the gate-opening of the 2017 MLS regular season.
With Seattle’s first two preseason matches in the books, the Sounders have three more in Charleston upcoming over a seven day period: Charleston Battery (Feb. 18), Atlanta United FC (Feb. 22) and Columbus Crew SC (Feb. 25). Once clear of that, the Sounders have a week to tune up any knocks in the engine before the curtain peels back and 2017 officially starts on March 4 in Houston.
So we’re close.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer and his staff still have a full week’s worth of preseason games to make alterations, but a few firm realities have already popped up on the radar. With that in mind, here’s one big question outstanding for each position as the preseason enters its final throes.
Goalkeeper: Can Stefan Frei stay healthy?
The entirety of the Sounders fan base held its collective breath when Stefan Frei, the caped hero of Seattle’s 2016 MLS Cup title, returned from a January U.S. Men’s National Team camp with an ankle injury. The questions then turned to how bad it was.
The unfortunate news was that it’s forced Frei to miss the Sounders’ preseason games to this point. The better news? It doesn’t appear serious. Frei’s training intensity continues to ramp up, and by his own admission, it would seem that he’s nearing a return to full strength. The upshot to Frei’s missed time is that it’s allowed backup Tyler Miller more game time, and Miller’s sparkled. Even still, it’s unclear whether Frei will be fully 100 percent to start the season.
In reality, there are no pointed questions for this position headed into the year. Frei is coming off one of the most lauded postseason performances of all time, and he remains the league’s most criminally underrated keeper (he wasn’t even in the final three voting for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2016). The only question is merely to hope Frei stays healthy. He’s clocked an immense amount of game time in three years in Seattle, and if all goes well he’ll crest 10,000 minutes in the Emerald City this season since 2014. That’s a lot of wear and tear. So long as Frei can keep his legs under him, the Sounders are set between the posts in 2017, no questions asked.
Defense: Who plays right back?
When it comes to the Sounders’ back four, start here: in six playoff games in 2016, the Sounders surrendered a microscopic two goals. Upon such titanium spines are championships won, and Seattle proved the adage once again last year. And the good news is that 75 percent of that starting core returns, including a central defensive combination in Chad Marshall and Roman Torres that might just be the league’s best.
But the 25 percent gap still doesn’t have a solution. We’re still not quite sure who will settle at right back.
The competition is easy enough to handicap, anyway. Between Brad Evans and Oniel Fisher, one of the two will end up as the regular right back in 2017. The rigors of the season more or less guarantee both will get their shot, and at least on paper it certainly looks as though Evans has an inside track. Evans was just in U.S. men’s national team camp as a defender, proving there’s still plenty of life in his defensive legs, and Tyrone Mears’ departure leaves an experience gap at the position.
Fisher is the more agile of the two, which would undoubtedly help the Sounders’ crucial overlapping in Schmetzer’s system, but Evans is the better defender. The Sounders should get a good one either way they turn, but the importance of the fullbacks in this particular 4-2-3-1 is not to be missed. It’s a significant decision.
Midfield: Where does the width come from?
Of all the promising individual performances this preseason, Alvaro Fernandez’s might be the most heartening for the Sounders coaching staff.
It isn’t merely that Fernandez has been arguably the Sounders’ most lively first teamer through their first two preseason matches (Joevin Jones also has a good shout here). It’s where he’s been lively that should generate some positive buzz in the locker room. At his most dangerous - especially in a half against Portland - Fernandez has been arrayed on the left flank and has been unusually vertical. Last year, Fernandez sometimes struggled to beat markers one-on-one and get to the end line, but he’s shown uncommon verve in that area this postseason.
If Fernandez is truly experiencing something of a renaissance, the Sounders will gladly take it. Because they’re still seeking consistency out wide.
The exit of nominal left midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz this offseason makes Fernandez’s role all the more important. The Uruguayan spent 2016 bouncing in and out of starting lineups, partially due to injury, and Seattle could especially use a good season to bolster a lack of width on the flanks. Even if the Sounders do see Fernandez as the starting left winger (if he keeps up these performances he’s earned it), the right side is still murky. And with few exceptions, they’ll be shoehorning someone into an unnatural role. Aaron Kovar is probably the only natural right midfielder on the roster, and we could see someone like Harry Shipp, Cristian Roldan or even Evans step into that spot down the line. Questions abound.
Forward: What’s Will Bruin’s role?
To head this off at the pass, Jordan Morris is not leaving the starting XI. It doesn’t much matter how recently acquired forward Will Bruin performs this preseason. If Morris is healthy (knock on wood), Morris will start. But even with that caveat, it’s not entirely clear where Morris starts.
For the entirety of his pro career in Houston, Bruin’s been a no-doubt No. 1 forward. More to the point, he’s deserved the honor. The prototypical poacher played at least 1,500 minutes in each of his six MLS seasons, and of his 178 career games, he’s started 152. That’s 85 percent. The fact that he has 50 goals in that time helps you understand why. Bruin’s situation in Seattle is a bit different, though, and the team he walks into is harboring the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year and a 14-goal-getter from a year ago. Houston this is not.
Bruin understands all this, but Schmetzer also understands he has an uncommonly good goal-scorer bristling for minutes. As quality as Chad Barrett was off the bench in Seattle, imagine a sort of Barrett 2.0 in skill type pushing for playing time. With the dearth of options on the wings, Bruin might just force his way onto the field with a big preseason.
The knock-on effect would either move Morris to the wide midfield or necessitate a change to a two-striker formation. Since the latter seems unlikely - Schmetzer’s showed no predilection for moving off the 4-2-3-1 - it’d probably be the former. Morris is not a natural winger, and Schmetzer was loathe to play him there until late in the season when Nelson Valdez went on a heater. It’s not hard to imagine Schmetzer doing the same if Bruin turns out to be a scoring revelation (and like Valdez, Bruin won’t work in any other position, while Morris will). A question that will only be resolved with the passage of time.