The Seattle Sounders are just shy of a quarter of a way through their 2021 MLS campaign. The club and the rest of the league get to regroup and recharge during this FIFA international break, so let’s take a moment to reflect on the 10 biggest storylines of the season so far.
The return of fans
Fans. Are. Back. There’s no bigger change from last year than this, an encouraging sign as the country is in the process of returning to normalcy from the COVID-19 pandemic. After returning to play in closed-door games last season, the Sounders and other clubs have reopened in limited capacities to spectators and have returned stadiums to their lively selves. You can learn more about Sounders FC’s stadium capacity plans for the rest of the 2021 season here.
From a playing standpoint, this was the biggest question mark heading into the season. Head Coach Brian Schmetzer had been steadfast in his use of a 4-2-3-1 formation since taking the reins in 2016, and with good reason. He’s led the Sounders to MLS Cup in four of the last five years. But with Jordan Morris expected to miss at least half the season on loan (and now longer with an ACL injury), Schmetzer & Co. switched to a 3-5-2. All this has done is helped Seattle to a…
Club-record best start
The Sounders have flown out of the gates this season and lead the Supporters’ Shield race with 18 points from eight matches. They’re one of only two remaining unbeaten teams (Nashville SC), have the league’s best Goal Differential (plus-11), are first in Goals Allowed (three) and second in Goals For (14).
In addition to being without Morris, perhaps the most impressive part of any of this is that the Sounders have done it without captain Nicolás Lodeiro. The Uruguayan No. 10 and reigning MLS Best XI selection has been limited to just 24 minutes of action while dealing with a quad strain and knee inflammation, the latter of which required arthroscopic surgery. His timetable to return is TBD. Seattle has also been without veteran stalwart goalkeeper Stefan Frei for the last three matches while he recovers from blood clots as complications from a sprained knee he suffered on May 12. Midfielder Jordy Delem is also out for the season after tearing his ACL on May 12 as well.
No goals from the run of play
Part of why the Sounders have yet to lose this season has been because they are the best defensive unit in the league. Seattle has allowed just three goals in eight matches, but all three have come from dead balls. No team has scored on the Sounders in the run of play in 12 hours of game time.
Nouhou new position
Schmetzer’s three-center-back formation has mitigated many an attack, as well as welcomed the opportunity for Nouhou to shine in a new position as the left center back. Nominally a traditional left back, the Cameroonian international has blossomed in his new role, snuffing out everything that comes his way. He even earned an early MLS MVP shout from MLSSoccer.com.
There is a major onus on the wingbacks to get forward and provide width in this new formation, and much of the success in the attacking third is dependent on it. Brad Smith and Alex Roldan have proven to be indispensable contributors on the outside. Smith hadn’t scored a professional goal in six years, but has already found the back of the net three times. Roldan, meanwhile, has become one of the league’s best crossers and has two assists.
Ruidíaz being Ruidíaz
Despite all the changes the Sounders have dealt with, forward Raúl Ruidíaz just continues to bag goals. The Peruvian marksman is second in the league with six tallies and now has 48 in 71 career MLS matches including the postseason.
The Sounders made two feel-good signings in the offseason, bringing in MLS veteran and Federal Way, Wash., native Kelyn Rowe as well as bringing back club legend Fredy Montero, who last played for the club in 2012. Each has made instant impacts. Rowe has started the last six matches and been a dynamic two-way player in central midfield alongside João Paulo. Montero, meanwhile, has two goals and an assist and will be a key asset next to Will Bruin up front while Ruidíaz is away with Peru for Copa América.
There have been real contributions from young Homegrown players this year. Non-Morris Homegrowns played 202 combined minutes all of last season. Already through eight matches, non-Morris Homegrowns have totaled 359 minutes in just eight matches, including four starts. Look for Josh Atencio, Danny Leyva, Ethan Dobbelaere and Reed Baker-Whiting to keep this trend up.