SEATTLE — Success has been a defining characteristic of the Seattle Sounders, a team that has reached the Major League Soccer postseason in each year of its existence.
Another has been the ability to correctly assess when it needs to overhaul its personnel, whether it’s bringing in an influx of fresh talent or giving younger players in the Sounders’ system a chance.
That’s not always an easy decision to make, especially after Seattle finished second in the MLS regular season, won the Western Conference championship and reached the MLS Cup final before losing to Columbus. But it’s the route Seattle picked going into this season with the aim of avoiding stagnation.
“We went all in to try to be a dynasty, to try to win at least three titles. And look, we fell short of our goal, ultimately, in Columbus and that stunk,” Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “That was embarrassing and a little humiliating, and it was a real bummer of a way to end the year. But hopefully, we’re gonna learn from it.”
Seattle’s most recent evolution has meant saying goodbye to players that were at the core of the club that reached four MLS Cup finals in five years and won two. Six players who were in the 18-player lineup for the MLS Cup final against Columbus are not on the 2021 roster.
The Sounders will also likely be without star midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, who suffered an injury in preseason training that’s expected to keep him out a few weeks.
Starting defender Kelvin Leerdam and winger Joevin Jones are both now with Inter Miami. Defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson is now in China playing for Guangzhou City. Defender Román Torres has returned to Panama. Miguel Ibarra is without a team.
And there’s the situation with Jordan Morris, who was loaned to Swansea City only to suffer a devastating knee injury that will likely keep him from playing for either Seattle or Swansea this year.
It’s not a rebuild for Seattle, a word Lagerwey used and immediately regretted.
“I used that word I hate. We’re not rebuilding anything. We are retooling around our core,” Lagerwey said. “This is not a rebuild. We’re going to be contenders this year.”
The biggest change for Seattle will be in its depth, an issue many MLS teams face at some point. Where the Sounders have brought experienced players like Will Bruin, Harry Shipp or Svensson off the bench in the past, this season the team will be calling on younger players in either starting or reserve roles.
Coupled with a congested calendar of fixtures — both league and international — those inexperienced players should get plenty of opportunity.
“The roster makeup is just different. That’s number one,” coach Brian Schmetzer said. “Number two, I think just by default because of a compressed season you’re going to have to rotate more guys. We again have a lot of super-talented players that might miss time because of the various international competitions and that’s going to create more opportunity. So by default I think young kids, yes, they’re going to get more chances.”
Seattle should remain among the better teams in the Western Conference because the Sounders still have stars like Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, Cristan Roldan and Stefan Frei. What the Sounders hope is that players like Ethan Dobbelaere, Shandon Hopeau, Danny Leyva and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez can develop into major contributors.
“I think the way that this team is set up, we’re going to adapt and learn how to win games in other ways,” defender Shane O’Neill said.