- After becoming the first MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions League earlier this year, the Seattle Sounders are struggling in MLS
- Between injuries, fixture congestion, and some issues in the attack, the Sounders could miss the playoffs for the first time ever
The Seattle Sounders started 2022 in historic fashion by becoming the first MLS team in history to win the Concacaf Champions League. Their win over Liga MX’s Pumas brought pride to the club, the city, and the league as a whole.
However, as Sounders fans and Brian Schmetzer are finding out, refocusing from a Champions League win is not as easy as flicking a switch. Even with their years of success in MLS – Seattle haven’t missed the playoffs since joining MLS and playing their first season in 2009 – they have been forced to play catch up.
With the end of the regular season in sight, Seattle are sitting in 10th in the Western Conference, three spots below the playoff line. Could this be Seattle’s first time missing the postseason? And what’s gone wrong for them since their victory in the CCL?
Let’s talk about that.
POOR START TO THE MLS SEASON
With their focus placed on the Champions League, Schmetzer’s team took four games to register their first win of the season in MLS. They struggled with fixture congestion and lost three games in a row between the CCL semifinals and final, along with one more loss in their first game after winning the Champions League.
Including that defeat to FC Dallas a few days after the final, Seattle started their season with five MLS defeats from eight MLS games. It’s clear that the Sounders’ CCL run damaged their ability to compete in MLS from the very start of the season.
With two wins and a draw in the first two and a half months of the regular season, they sat 13th in the Western Conference with seven points and only nine goals scored. Last season, Seattle were unbeaten through eight games, scoring 14 goals and only conceding three. They had five wins and three draws from their opening eight games without the distraction of the CCL.
As Seattle prepared for the season, the extra workload of the CCL might suggest that the Sounders would add a few senior players to help them manage the extra games.
Two players left the backline before this season: Brad Smith was traded to DC United and Shane O’Neill signed for Toronto FC. In spite of losing these starters, the club didn’t sign replacements with comparable experience.
A big signing came in higher up the field, though. Albert Rusnak signed as a Designated Player in the offseason, which was a big get for Seattle. Rusnak scored 11 goals in 35 games for Real Salt Lake in MLS in 2021 and expectations were high that he would turn this Sounders team into a nearly unstoppable force moving forward.
However, Rusnak started the season slowly. He was unable to find the net in an attacking midfield or center forward role. Schmetzer has since moved Rusnak to central midfield where he has added value for Seattle. He’s scored twice in league play and is averaging 8.46 passes into the final third per game with an 83% success rate, per Wyscout. Rusnak could be a useful option for Seattle in his deeper midfield role for the duration of his time as a Sounder.
Outside of signing Rusnak, Schmetzer and his staff promoted players from the academy and second team, including Obed Vargas and Jackson Regan, to add depth to the first team. This comes with its risks, as players need time to settle in at a higher level.
INJURIES PILING UP
Unfortunately for Seattle, they experienced some major injuries early in the season.
Star defensive midfielder João Paulo went down with a season-ending injury in the CCL Final. Vargas, a teenager, was impressive in his time deputizing for Paulo, keeping the ball moving in possession and winning the majority of his duels. Again though, injuries struck in central midfield and Vargas suffered a serious back injury in late June and hasn’t played since. Those injuries have hurt Seattle’s ability to protect their defense and forced Schmetzer to shift his midfield personnel on the fly.
But the injury bug didn’t stop there.
Raul Ruidiaz, the man Seattle have relied so heavily on in front of goal since his arrival in 2018, has missed a big chunk of this season, too. Ruidíaz has only played 943 minutes in MLS this year, according to FBref. Replacements Will Bruin and Fredy Montero have plenty of MLS experience, but they’re not at Ruidiaz’s level.
Let’s not forget Cristian Roldan’s injury, either. Roldan is expected to miss four to six weeks after his recent groin surgery. Down goes another key player.
If we look outside of Seattle’s roster and injury issues, they’ve been struggling to put the ball in the back of the net.
It’s been 10 games since Seattle last won a game by more than one goal. They’re also underperforming their expected goals with 34 goals from an xG tally of 37.6, per FBref. Seattle are 13th in MLS in xG per 90 minutes but they’re not converting enough of their chances to climb up the Western Conference table.
In the Sounders’ last home defeat, a 2-1 loss to RSL, they had 16 shots with only three on target. This is a concerning trend for Schmetzer. In a 2-1 loss to Atlanta on August 6, they had 14 shots with only four on target; against LAFC on July 29, they had 11 shots without registering a single shot on target; and against Chicago on July 16, they had 15 shots with only two on target.
Per Second Spectrum, Ruidíaz and Nicolas Lodeiro have average shot distances of 17 and 15.4 meters, respectively. Neither are finding enough shooting opportunities in the box and are instead being forced to shoot from range. As a group, the Sounders have only 101 shots on target out of their total 330 shots, which means they’re only testing the goalkeeper 30.6% of the time.
That’s the forth worst rate in MLS, per FBref.
In 2021, Ruidíaz scored 17 goals in MLS. This year, he has six goals in limited minutes. Paulo was the team’s leading assist provider last year with eight. Without these two players for much of this season, others have tried to step up. Overall, though, the goalscoring just hasn’t been there for the Sounders, who are 21st in the league in goals per 90 minutes.
Seattle finished with one of the stingiest defenses in the league in 2021, conceding just 32 goals in MLS and allowing 37.0 xG.
The Sounders’ defense has performed well in 2022, but their numbers aren’t nearly as strong as they were last year. This season, Seattle have allowed 36 goals on 38.7 xG – they’re on track to surpass both their goals allowed and xG allowed numbers from the previous year.
Relative to the rest of MLS, the Sounders are in the top half of the league in goals allowed per 90 minutes, but their numbers are a far cry from last season’s showing.
Schmetzer shifted from a back three to a back four (and is now toying with the back three for the stretch run). Those shifts can take time to perfect and injuries to key midfielders have created a lack of consistency and control for large sections of the season. Maybe the Sounders miss having an extra center back to patrol inside their own half. Or maybe their injury list is simply too long to truly reach 2021’s defensive heights.
Either way, Seattle have struggled to win possession in advanced positions. Only five teams have registered fewer pressures in the final third in 2022 and only six have registered fewer pressures in the middle third, according to FBref. That lack of pressure higher up the field puts real stress on the defense.
CAN THEY DO IT?
As we head into the final stretch of the regular season, the Sounders find themselves below the playoff line.
They certainly have a chance to finish in the West’s top seven, though, with only a handful of points between them and the playoff line. Schmetzer also has Ruidiaz back up front, which will be a massive boost to a team that has struggled to capitalize on many attacking chances this year.
However, injury issues and a lack of depth in midfield could hurt Seattle as they inch closer to Decision Day. If they don’t climb into the top seven out West to extend their postseason streak, this season could well be considered a disappointment, even with the CCL win.