Seattle Sounders FC Media Day means, most of all, that the MLS regular season is finally here. After weeks of pre-season action in Seattle, California and Arizona, plus one injury-scare to Brad Smith in San Jose, meaningful soccer is back. The pre-season wasn't completely fruitless, though. We have seen the emergence of 15 year-old Danny Leyva and Jordan Morris' return to full health.
Morris, who suffered a torn ACL in the 81st minute of the first competitive game of 2018 in Santa Tecla, is starting at right wing for Sounders FC to begin this season, highlighting his speed and ability to stretch defenses vertically. Based on the pre-season, including an assist in San Jose, it does not appear Morris has lost much, if any, speed from before the injury.
"Throughout the preseason I felt pretty good. Feeling like my speed is pretty much the same as it was before my injury," Morris said.
Head Coach Brian Schmetzer will roll out his typical 4-2-3-1 formation to start the season, featuring Stefan Frei in goal, Smith at left back, Chad Marshall and Kim Kee-hee as the center-backs, Kelvin Leerdam at right back, Cristian Roldan shifting back down to defensive midfielder alongside Gustav Svensson, Victor Rodriguez (left) and Morris (right) on the wings, plus new Team Captain Nicolas Lodeiro at central attacking midfielder and Raul Ruidiaz up top at forward.
Ruidiaz ended the 2018 regular season leading the Sounders to wins in 14 of their last 16 games, the best second half in league history, and scoring 10 goals. Lodeiro added another six goals and 11 assists over the span. The attack now adds a healthy Morris, leading to speculation that this Seattle attack could be the best statistically in franchise history.
Depth appears to be another strength of the 2019 Sounders, with Nouhou pushing Smith at left back, Roman Torres and newly acquired Jonathan Campbell backing up at center-back and newly signed Saad Abdul-Salaam behind Leerdam. That's just the back four, with every other position is at least two players deep as well. Key players who will be among the usual substitutes to start the year include Will Bruin, Harry Shipp, Handwalla Bwana, Alex Roldan and Jordy Delem.
Gone is Ozzie Alonso, now locking down the defensive midfield in Minnesota, and Waylon Francis, back in Columbus. How will the Sounders make up for the absence of Alonso? It will take a village, starting with Roldan and Svensson with Delem as the next man up, if needed. Lodeiro has also spent time at holding midfielder if needed, with Rodriguez able to shift over in Lodeiro's #10 position.
"[Alonso] was known for his presence defensively," Roldan said. "On the ball, I could be a little bit cleaner, a little sharper. Connect the defense to the attack and that's my goal this year. And obviously become a bigger leader because Ozzie was a fine leader."
With high expectations, Seattle begins the regular season at home on Saturday against FC Cincinnati, MLS' newest expansion club. This is the second consecutive year an MLS expansion team has started their season at CenturyLink Field, the last being Los Angeles FC, who defeated the Sounders 1-0. Unlike LAFC, Cincinnati is transitioning from the USL to MLS, much like Seattle did in 2009. The club has moved both their USL Head Coach and multiple USL players to MLS, while trading for many other players that will be key to their success in 2019.
"It's a team that has nothing to lose," Frei said. "If they walk out of here losing 4-0, they're going to be like 'oh that's what everyone expected', so they can't cheat a little bit and experiment a little bit and the pressure is on us."
Former Portland Timbers forward Fanendo Adi, who has scored countless goals against Seattle over years, will play up top for Cincinnati and former Vancouver Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston will lock down the defensive side of the ball. Without any non-pre-season tape to prepare from, Schmetzer and the Sounders must prepare for a team with many question marks.
Meanwhile, the cloud looming over the Sounders is the history of poor starts. Last year, it took the best second half in league history to climb back up and capture the second seed in the Western Conference. Good news, however, is that this year features the friendliest first half schedule in recent memory. The first 13 games of the season feature only two opponents who finished higher that sixth place in their conference (LAFC on April 21 and April 28) and only two mid-week matches coming off short rest. Add that to the health and depth, and it's hard to see the "slow start" trend continuing in 2019.
"It's been a stressful three years, and the reality is, I think it's been a stressful three years for the fans...In the end it's personal motivation. It's the team and organization coming together and saying 'look we gotta hold ourselves to a bigger standard'," Roldan said.
The Sounders and Cincinnati kick off at 7:20 p.m. on Saturday with Sports Radio 950 KJR's Pre-Game Show starting around 6:40.