Seattle Sounders continue searching for right back solution as regular season nears

At least in an unofficial sense, you can close the book on the 2017 Seattle Sounders preseason.

Seattle wrapped up a trio of games in Charleston, S.C., on Saturday with a 1-0 loss to Columbus Crew SC. The game looked destined for a scoreless draw until 2017 draft pick Niko Hansen found space in the box and beat Stefan Frei to his right with about 10 minutes left. The Sounders generated a few chances of note, but the goal wouldn’t come. Crew SC ultimately won the Carolina Challenge Cup.

The subtext to the game, aside from the fact that it was a meaningless preseason match, was that it brought a close to the Sounders’ games before the start of the season. The next game Seattle plays will be a regular season one on the road at the Houston Dynamo on March 4 (5:30 p.m. PT | Matchcenter).

Let’s take a look under the hood at three things we learned from Saturday’s match.

Frei’s back

For more or less the entire preseason, Frei’s been rehabbing a bum ankle he injured at United States national team training camp in mid-January. That kept him out of each of Seattle’s previous four preseason matches and threw some doubt on his fitness for the start of the season. Would Frei be ready in time? Saturday was a resounding “yes” to that question, as it certainly seems as though Frei’s back up to full fighting strength.

Columbus’ attacking presence put a significant amount of pressure on Seattle, forcing Frei into action perhaps more than anyone would have ideally preferred. But it had the necessary side effect of pushing Frei into form after missed time, and as a result Frei was just about everywhere for the duration. He had his first test in the 17th minute when Harrison Afful sent in a whipped cross that forced Frei off his line. He pushed off his ankle and went into a full stretch to pluck the cross out of the air and bounced up no worse for the wear. It was an encouraging sign and set the tone for yet another Frei-esque performance. Whether or not the ankle is fully 100 percent yet, this looked every bit like the Frei who helped win an MLS Cup little more than two months ago.

The right back project continues

For the entirety of the offseason, the debate about the Sounders’ consistent right back in 2017 has been predictable and intractable: Brad Evans or Oniel Fisher? It made sense, anyway, since both were the most experienced fullbacks on the roster and seemed to be vying for the spot throughout the preseason. But Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer threw an interesting wrinkle in the discussion on Saturday. Could Gustav Svensson be the Tyrone Mears replacement for whom the Sounders are looking? It’s not as outlandish as it seemed before this weekend.

Svensson, of course, is a holding midfielder by trade. At least initially it was thought he’d provide depth in the middle behind Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan, but now Schmetzer has me thinking twice about that. Of course Svensson, like Evans the past two years, can still provide that depth, but he could also have a starting spot awaiting him elsewhere — at right back. Svensson was an immovable object on Saturday, and he won his individual battles with tricky dribbler Justin Meram more often than not. Svensson is probably not as quick on the overlap as Evans and certainly not Fisher, but he was also defensively rock-solid and even put in a few crosses. Our episode of As The Right Back Turns just got an interesting new chapter.

The 2017 preseason: a relative success story

It’d be easy to simply write off Seattle’s preseason because they went 0-3-2 in Tucson, Ariz., and Charleston, but that’s to miss the point entirely. The preseason isn’t about wins, and certainly not for a club that returns almost every starter from a championship team. It’s about discovering things you didn’t already know, fitness and cohesive development, in that order. And it’s hard to classify this preseason as anything other than a relative success (all things are relative) based on that rubric.

Schmetzer & Co. learned Henry Wingo can hack it at the first-team level, Clint Dempsey is ready to roll, Svensson can work at right back and they can rely on Will Bruin up top. Check. They managed to build fitness while avoiding injuries entirely. The preseason only becomes a disaster if poor form or injuries bleed into the regular season, and at least in the latter case there are no major injuries to concern the Sounders’ staff. Jordan Morris was held out of the Columbus match as a precaution, but it doesn’t appear to be anything serious. Otherwise, the Sounders escaped anything worrisome. Check. Finally, the cohesion part will have to wait several months to bear fruit, but don’t forget that Dempsey returning to the Starting XI is a major jolt to a team that was already dangerous.

As far as preseasons go, this was a solid one. And soon, blessedly, meaningful games will be upon us. Oh, happy day.