After losing MLS Cup 3-0 to the Columbus Crew, what is next for Seattle Sounders FC? How different will the club look in 2021, what lineup will Brian Schmetzer put out in the first week, and will Seattle's Head Coach be back at all? We break down each topic below, and much more.
Who Is Gone?
On Monday, the Rave Green officially declined the contract options of Justin Dhillon, Miguel Ibarra, and Joevin Jones. According to reports, Ibarra is already seeing interest from elsewhere in MLS. For all three, General Manager Garth Lagerwey said on Wednesday, "it's up to them now" where to go next with their careers, being able to join the MLS re-entry draft. Lagerwey's understanding is that Jones, the Sounders starting right-winger for MLS Cup, will be in that draft.
Joevin Jones ended the season with two disappointing performances, including failing to track back defensively during Columbus' first goal in MLS Cup. Since returning from Germany in 2019, Joevin never returned to the form from his first stint with Seattle in 2016-17, recording only five assists in 30 games after an 11 assist season in 2017. "Joevin has been a good player for our club, but these are tough decisions," Schmetzer said.
Players out of contract for Seattle include Stefan Cleveland, Jimmy Medranda, Kelvin Leerdam, Gustav Svensson, and Roman Torres. According to Niko Moreno, the most likely of that group to return to the Rave Green could be Medranda, who the club acquired in a late-season trade with Nashville.
For Leerdam and Svensson, it's possible that not starting in MLS Cup could poison the waters of a possible return. However, a much larger issue could be the financial flexibility of the Sounders. Lagerwey and company brought back left-back Brad Smith during the season on a back-loaded contract that saw the Australian making less money in 2020, and instead, more over the next two years of his deal. That price could mean the absence of Leerdam and Svensson in 2021.
Lagerwey admitted Wednesday that the club hit the salary cap wall at the end of the season, contributing to their decisions regarding Jones, Leerdam, and Svensson, with the cap staying flat for 2021.
Signing Anyone New?
"There will be fewer experienced players on the Sounders next year, as compared to this year," the General Manager said. "That is part of the cycle, and by no means is that a rebuild...But we're entering a little bit of this next phase now where we have prospects like Ethan Dobbelaere and Shandon Hopeau and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez that are candidates at right-wing. We have prospects in Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio that are candidates in the central midfield...Can they make meaningful contributions now? Where instead of going out and signing an experienced pro from Europe or South America, you are getting contributions from those kids as part of the solution that helps us through this patch where we have a ton of money tied up in fewer and fewer players as a result of five years of unmitigated success where, correctly, those good players have performed well and have been paid more money."
Lagerwey followed this up by saying that the club's pool of resources is "close to non-existent" to bring in outside players. "We've got a little bit of room, and I don't want to act like there's nothing we can do, but there is no plan right now to have an impact addition in the January window from outside the league."
Garth also notes the lack of an ability to do full scouting of outside players due to COVID-19 affects this strategy.
Who Could Return?
Brazillian midfielder Joao Paulo made an instant impact to Seattle when he joined the Sounders on loan from Botafogo for the start of the 2020 season. Scoring in the first CONCACAF Champions League competition highlighted his capabilities from multiple spots on the field. But now his status is up in the air as a buy-out sits on the table to keep 'J.P.' in the Northwest. Lagerwey said the club intends to bring him back, and Joao Paulo wants to be back, and that it's likely the midfielder would still be a Designated Player for Seattle, making more than 1.5 million dollars.
"In my life experience, I would not go to the mat with South American media reports," Lagerwey said of the Brazillian reports that Seattle has already decided to bring back Joao Paulo. "I am cautiously optimistic something will get worked out, and to be clear, probably sooner than later."
It is, of course, still possible the club uses their limited funds to bring back one of the out-of-contract players as well.
Who Is Back?
On Wednesday, Lagerwey confirmed that star midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro has been signed to a three-year extension that keeps the Uruguayan in Seattle through 2023. Striker Raul Ruidiaz is also signed through 2021 with an option for 2022 that the club apparently already plans to pick up, as evidenced by Lagerwey saying the Peruvian is under contract through 2022.
Additionally, Seattle exercised contract options for Will Bruin, Stefan Frei, Shandon Hopeau, Nouhou, Shane O'Neill, and Alex Roldan. That means the Sounders will retain their backup striker who played a key role off the bench multiple times in recent years, their starting goal-keeper who anchored the club in the recent four-MLS-Cup-in-five-year stretch, and three staring defenders from 2020 MLS Cup. Nouhou's return is interesting, as it relates to Brad Smith and who will start at left-back in 2021.
When the club initially brought Smith to Seattle on loan from Bournemouth in 2018, Lagerwey called the Australian a "left-sided player", opening the door for Brad to possibly play on the left-wing more going forward. Another possibility could be the Sounders selling Nouhou to an International club if the 23-year-old garners any interest for his incredible speed and defensive skills.
Based on Lagerwey's comments about limited funds to use on external players and O'Neill's return, Seattle could see a similar center-back situation as in 2020, where the Sounders rotated O'Neill and Ecuadorian defender Xavier Arreaga throughout the season next to mainstay Yeimar Gomez-Andrade, another newcomer this year who made an immediate impact on the club. O'Neill's return also stands as defensive insurance when Arreaga joins Ecuador for International Duty.
Is Brian Schmetzer Staying?
"I've always said, I hope to be back," Schmetzer said. Lagerwey and Brian's agent have been working on a deal recently and it appears both parties are on the same page. "Brian and I are alighted. We want to bring Brian and the staff back...We're working on it, hopefully we'll get there," Garth said on Wednesday.
Schmetzer joined KJR's Dave "Softy" Mahler and Dick Fain on Tuesday expressing similar sentiments while adding, "If I were a betting man, I think I'll be back." No timetable was given on a deal, though.
When Will the 2021 Season Start?
The Sounders have not been officially told when the 2021 season will begin. Lagerwey noted that the league has told them the "standard start date and standard report date" of the first weekend in March 2021 and January to report, but that the status of COVID-19 will affect that situation. Last week, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the league is aiming for a mid-March start to the 2021 season.
Certainly, fans being back in the stands at a high percentage in stadiums is key to Major League Soccer returning in 2021.
What Will the 2021 Lineup Be?
Before listing any possible lineup, it is important to note that some positions may simply change based on the opponent and who Seattle needs on the field. For example, at the center-back position, some matches may see Arreaga start beside Gomez-Andrade, and others may see O'Neill, depending on opposing attackers.
One position that could now be locked up is right back. With Alex Roldan's option picked up and Leerdam departing, the Sounders could now look to Cristian's brother to hold down his new position which he converted to before the 2020 season. Alex started numerous matches from that spot this year, including Saturday's MLS Cup.
"Alex has made great strides," Schmetzer said. "Last year, Alex had some disappointment when we didn't re-sign him, and it was a little bit of a wake-up call. Sometimes players need that." The Head Coach also noted that he and Lagerwey made it clear to Roldan that "this is still pro sports" and the club could still look to bring in a more experienced right-back in the MLS re-entry draft or from Tacoma Defiance. "There's all sorts of different options," Brian said.
Regarding rumors that Jordan Morris desires a future playing career in Europe, Lagerwey said the Mercer Island native is worth more to Seattle because of his impact on the community. Garth also noted that the Sounders will support Morris in whichever path he wants to take. Jordan signed a five-year contract before the 2019 season, meaning any European club would need to pay the Rave Green a hefty sum to take the left-winger.
So, considering Morris part of the 2021 lineup, what could Brian Schmetzer throw out on the field in March 2021?
Raul Ruidiaz is your single striker up top in the 4-2-3-1. Nicolas Lodeiro will sit in the middle of the attacking midfield with Morris either on his right or his left. It's possible Jordan is once again on the left, leaving the right-wing open for Cristian Roldan.
In the defensive midfield, Joao Paulo, assuming he returns, could play beside either Cristian Roldan or veteran Jordy Delem. If it's Delem, Roldan could then push higher to the right-wing where he started the 2020 season on paper. It is also possible that youngster Danny Leyva takes a step forward, and into the lineup instead of Delem. If, however, Roldan starts beside Joao Paulo, one wing spot next to Lodeiro would open up.
As noted earlier, Lagerwey's "left-sided player" comment about Brad Smith could indicate a move to the midfield, putting Smith on Lodeiro's left and Morris on the right as Roldan and 'J.P.' stay in the defensive midfield.
If Schmetzer goes with a more traditional approach with Delem or Leyva on the field and Cristian on the right-wing, the left-back position could then see a competition between Nouhou and Smith. See the graphics below for a different perspective on how the lineup could shake out to begin the 2021 season.