It is good that the Sounders are back, but the Sounders are not back to being good.
The MLS returned over the weekend and Seattle kicked off its 14th season as a part of the league with a game at home against Nashville FC. The game did not go the way that the tea and its fans would have hoped for, with Nashville winning 1-0 in a game that wasn’t actually as close as the one goal difference suggests. This doesn’t mean that doomsday is coming for the Sounders and that the 13-season playoff streak is surely coming to an end. A lot of teams start out slow but still end up doing alright. The Green Bay Packers laid an absolute egg in week one of the 2021 regular season before finishing with the best record. The Georgia Bulldogs scored zero offensive touchdowns in a 10-3 win over Clemson in the first week of the college season yet ended up winning the championship. This poor showing to start the season isn’t the worst thing ever but it certainly creates some questions going forward.
In 2021, and most other seasons, the Sounders are one of the best and most dominant teams in the MLS. They have finished second in the conference for the past five seasons and have not done so by accident. They have had the ability to control games and play them at their pace, which is a huge benefit for any team. The exact opposite happened against Nashville. Seattle was constantly making mistakes in its own half, turning the ball over countless times. Nashville created good opportunities off those turnovers but a combination of poor execution and good goaltending by Stefan Frei kept Nashville off the board for almost the entire game. The keyword there is almost because, in the 80th minute, Anibal Godoy finally found the back of the net and made the scoreboard represent how the game felt. Honestly, the Sounders are lucky to have only lost this game by one goal. They never really felt like a legitimate threat to score a goal in this match. The only semi-dangerous chances came from crosses or corners and none of the finishes were particularly threatening. The offense seemed to stall when it got into the attacking zone. The players looked like they didn’t know how to play together to get to the goal.
There are a few possibilities for the disjointed play that happened on the pitch. The biggest one is probably the absence of Raul Ruidiaz, the team’s best striker and leading goal-scorer the past four seasons. A team certainly looks different offensively when they are without their go-to guy at the top. Samuel Adeniran took Ruidiaz’s place and although he didn’t play poorly, it was clear something was missing. Adeniran seemed out of place at times, sometimes ending up on the wing and not providing the same playmaking ability that Ruidiaz would have. Another absence that clearly hurt Seattle was being without Nicolas Lodeiro, who began the game on the bench. He is the play driver from his spot in central midfield and usually the main cog in the offensive system. That was evident based on the difference in play in the two halves. Lodeiro subbed on at halftime and provided a boost to the offense even though it did not end up being enough. Six of Seattle’s 10 shots came after Lodeiro came on the pitch, including both shots on goal. The Sounders will no doubt look like a better team with both those guys playing but it is not a great sign that the offense struggles this much without them. Another possible reason for the rough outing from Seattle is the integration of new, or even returning, players. Adeniran was one of three players that were new to the starting lineup. Midfielders Obed Vargas (who is 16 years old) and Albert Rusnak (who was acquired in a trade this offseason) were the other two. There were even players that have started before that were integrating back into the team. One of them was defender Nouhou, who played just 19 games last season due to injury, who also had to transition back to playing leftback as opposed to centerback like he played last year. The other player that was returning was Jordan Morris. Although he is very familiar with the Sounders organization after being a stalwart for so long, Morris played in just three games last year, drawing one start, so is still getting back used to MLS play. The team did have the offseason to get used to playing with each other but it is possible that it could take a few regular seasons with the full squad to finally figure it out.
I do not expect the Sounders to look like this for the rest of the season. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if they look like this for a few more games. Eventually, Seattle will figure it out and get back to being the Western Conference juggernaut, but it may be a bit. When the playoffs come around the Sounders will probably be just as good as ever because that is what they do, but the journey to get there might be a little bumpier than usual.