Román Torres injury forces Sounders FC to shuffle the deck

Román Torres won’t play for Sounders FC again this season. The team was pressed under the weight of that news this week after it was revealed Torres tore his ACL after an awkward landing against San Jose last weekend. That knocked him out for the season and in all likelihood severely curtailed any soccer activity at all for at least the next six months and possibly much more, depending how the recovery goes.

Details were relatively scarce on Tuesday – surgery will come at a later date, and the extent of the damage will be much clearer once the swelling has subsided – but here’s what’s clear: It’s a tough blow for any team, but doubly so considering how quickly Torres found himself a key part of the setup in Seattle on and off the field.

International transfers can be a weighted personnel lottery. As sure as teams can be about a player’s ability, it’s tough to simulate their effect on a fully-formed locker room at midseason from a few observations from afar and preliminary contract talks.

But Sounders FC did its due diligence on Torres, correctly taking his reputation as a calm enforcer as a sign that there was more to his game than just his obvious benefit as a physical behemoth and an aerial wizard. Over Torres’ brief but bright four league appearances for Seattle this season, he was routinely among the first on the scene to put out fires, even as the midfield juggled injuries. But he was also a welcome presence in the locker room, despite the fact that there was one notable caveat about his communication ability right off the bat.

“He doesn’t speak any English,” veteran Brad Evans said. “For a lot of us, we speak bits and pieces of Spanish, and mostly its the joking around kind of Spanish, the locker room talk, stuff that’s not really talked about off the field. From that respect he integrated very well. The banter was good, the work rate was good. He was a professional from minute one.”

What Torres did better than anything on-field was recovery work. His size belied his low center of gravity and quick-burst agility - his legs are the size of a mature sequoia - which complemented fellow centerback Chad Marshall perfectly. While Marshall tended to body up the target forward, Torres was free to step to challenges and muscle off smaller attackers wherever they were most dangerous. This chart is from Torres’ last 90-minute performance, a 2-1 win against the Portland Timbers on Aug. 30.

Very few centerbacks are capable of putting together games this tactically busy and diverse. Torres managed an abnormally high eight clearances against Portland, and three of those came from inside his own six-yard box. Torres was essentially the final bulwark keeping the tidewaters from rolling farther up the beach.

What’s more, he contributed nine interceptions - many centerbacks don’t get there once all season – and three were around the half field line. This kind of versatility is hard to find.

The good news is that readymade reinforcements are already in place. Evans spent the entire offseason working in at centerback for the first time. After some early hiccups at the position, he and Marshall settled into a rhythm that kept Seattle’s defense in the league’s top five, where it has stayed all season. Indeed, Evans was first choice there until Torres was acquired late this summer. That moved Evans up to the central midfield, where he performed admirably largely in spot duty.

Considering Evans’ ability and his possession of the captaincy, he’s a natural choice to scoot back into that role next to Marshall. But one side effect of the intense upheaval in the starting XI this year is a variety of experience at the position. Sounders FC certainly doesn’t lack for options.

“Obviously we’ve had Brad play centerback before,” head coach Sigi Schmid said. “We’ve got Zach Scott, who can play centerback. We’re looking at a little bit of short term, a little bit of long term, what the best solutions are. Brad and me chatted [on Tuesday], so no matter what the solution is, it might require Brad playing the odd game at centerback and we’ll go with Zach, or maybe he goes back there and plays. We’ll see.”

Even still, Schmid acknowledges the concussive blow caused by Torres’ absence is cushioned considerably by the club’s veteran experience. Even with a prolonged absence for Gold Cup duty in July, Evans has already logged 1,911 minutes this season, most of that on the back line.

Scott, meanwhile, is on his fourth consecutive season with at least 1,200 minutes at the tender age of 35, and even second-year defender Jimmy Ockford found his way into the lineup sheet for the first time. He got his first league start in a narrow 1-0 loss on the road to the Philadelphia Union on June 24, and he played both CONCACAF Champions League matches against CD Olimpia in August.

Even if Sounders FC wanted to make another acquisition, the MLS roster freeze extended its frosty grip to the league’s 20 teams on Sept. 15, three days after Torres’ injury. So to beef up the depth chart, Seattle activated Damion Lowe from the Disabled List and threw the eighth overall pick from the 2014 MLS SuperDraft into the mixer going forward.

Seattle didn’t anticipate losing Torres, one of the unsung heroes of the team’s recent uptick in results. But team brass is confident in the depth it’s tried so hard to cultivate all season.

“It’s just a tough, tough injury,” said Garth Lagerwey, the Sounders FC General Manager & President of Soccer. “[Torres] was so excited to be here and we were so excited to add him. That said, we have good options there. Zach Scott’s been doing it there for 15 years for the Sounders in various iterations. Brad Evans did I think a very good job. It was never a comment on Brad’s ability back there that we brought in Román. We got a great deal on a great player and we went and did it. That’s the way we’re going to go going forward if we have opportunities to improve the team. Zach and Brad bring different qualities to the centerback position. But you basically look at what they do well and you try and complement it.”