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Here's everything you need to know about the Sounders' 2023 MLS season

Less than a month after making history in the Club World Cup, Seattle's 2023 MLS season will begin Sunday against the Colorado Rapids at Lumen Field.

SEATTLE — The Seattle Sounders FC had a fascinating 2022 campaign that simultaneously pushed the club forward and set Major League Soccer (MLS) history, but was also tinged with a massive disappointment. 

Let's start with the positives: Seattle won the Concacaf Champions League, becoming the first MLS club ever to win the current iteration of the tournament. The victory made Seattle eligible for the Club World Cup in February, another first for MLS. The Club World Cup did not amount to a deep run - the Sounders lost 1-0 to Egyptian side Al Ahly in the opening round - but it did establish the Seattle-based club on a bigger stage. 

On the flip side, the Sounders' missed out on the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2022, snapping the league's longest postseason streak at 13 years. It's even more of a disappointment when 50% of the league's clubs made the postseason last year. The Sounders were 11th in the Western Conference with 41 points.

Now, less than a month after competing in the Club World Cup, Seattle's 2023 MLS season will begin Sunday evening against the Colorado Rapids at Lumen Field.

The goal, as always, is for the Sounders to return to its stature as one of the league's best clubs.

Season overview

You aren't going to see many MLS seasons play out quite like the Sounders in 2022. The club won a major trophy early in the season, lost a key player for the season due to injury, and stumbled for the remaining five months of the MLS season. It still was a successful season when you consider the mammoth accomplishment of the Concacaf Champions League. 

Looking forward to 2023, the Sounders are returning the same core that is still among the league's strongest. There is every reason to expect the Sounders to bounce back. 

What are expectations for the Sounders season?

Still pretty high. ESPN's FiveThirtyEight projects the Sounders to make the playoffs 80% of the time, with a 4% shot at winning the MLS Cup title. Seattle's 44.6 Soccer Power Index (SPI) score, a metric that rates the overall level of each club in the world, is still among MLS' top scores. 

Sounders to watch

2021 MLS MVP finalist João Paulo is back after tearing his ACL in the Concacaf Champions League Final against Mexican side Pumas UNAM. The do-it-all midfielder returned in limited action in the Club World Cup.

Paulo will join Albert Rusnak and Nicolas Lodeiro in the Sounders midfield, forming one of the most balanced and creative units in MLS. 

Seattle is expected to use a 4-3-3 formation in its matches, which features four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards. 

Paulo's return will allow Lodeiro to push up forward in the formation and join the attack when the Sounders have the ball. That's good news because Lodeiro and Rusnak were among the league's best passers in 2022. 

Compared to other midfielders, Lodeiro is in the 99th percentile in passes completed and "progressive passes," which happens when the ball moves 10 yards closer to the goal than it was. 

Rusnak complements Lodeiro by adding the ability to dribble the ball up the field and create chances for his teammates. Rusnak, last season's big signing, is in the 93rd percentile in progressive carries, meaning he's able to carve up defenses with the ball. 

Seattle's midfield unit will make life easier for the forward trio of Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidíaz and Cristian Roldan this season.

Morris, the forward on the left side of the pitch, is still working himself back into form after another major knee injury derailed his career trajectory. His latest knee injury cut his 2021 season to just two games. The Mercer Island native offers a burst pace on the left side of the Sounders attack, scoring 42 goals in his MLS career. Morris, who has also only played for the Sounders, signed a five-year extension to stay with the club long-term in the offseason.

Ruidíaz scored nine goals last season, his lowest scoring output since 2015 when he was playing in Peru's league. He's hoping to get back to being the ruthless finisher at the front of the Sounders attack. The 5-foot-5 Peruvian forward has scored 59 league goals in 97 MLS games. 

Roldan has had experience in other positions, but he's found a home on the right side alongside Morris and Ruidíaz. Where he lacks as a finisher, Roldan is the swiss army knife along the forward line that thrives at creating goals, intercepting passes and stretching the opposing defense. The 26-year-old signed another five-year contract extension to remain with the club this offseason, as he's only played for the Sounders in his entire career. 

Seattle's starting 11 is bookended with goalkeeper Stefen Frei, who has been the club's unquestioned goalkeeper since he arrived in 2014. The 2016 MLS Cup MVP has a penchant for making big saves in important moments.

2023 competitions, a breakdown

If you are new to following the Sounders, there are several competitions that occur during the season. Each competition is an opportunity for the Sounders to win a trophy. 

MLS Cup: Just like other American professional sports, this title is decided through the regular season and by making the MLS postseason. There is a big wrinkle this season because MLS announced Tuesday that it expanded its postseason in 2023 and added a best-of-3 series, too. 

Now there will be 18 teams that qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs -- nine in each conference. This means 60% of clubs will be in the postseason, a positive for generating broadcast revenue but could dilute what was already a crammed postseason. 

MLS said the eighth and ninth-best teams in each conference will qualify for the "Wild Card," which will be a single-game elimination hosted by the higher seed. The winners of the 8 vs. 9 matchups will advance to a best-of-3 series against the conference's No. 1 seed. 

Once the wild card round is complete, the higher seed will host the first match and third matches in a three-game series (if the final match is required). There will be no draws or aggregate scores, according to MLS. If a match is tied at the end of the regulation in the best-of-3 series, MLS said it will immediately start penalty kicks to decide the result. 

From there, the final two rounds of the MLS Cup playoffs will be single-elimination and feature 15-minute extra time periods in case there are ties, like last season. 

Tweaking the postseason is a big change for the league, a decision made with less than one week before the season begins. Many fans are split on the new format, fearing it will reduce the stakes of the regular season. We'll see how it all plays out.

Leagues Cup: This is another big shift for the league. Each club from MLS  and Liga MX, Mexico's top-tier soccer league, will compete in an annual month-long tournament to crown the best club among the two countries. The World Cup-style tournament will feature 47 clubs (29 from MLS, 18 from Liga MX) in group stages followed by a knockout round. In all, there will be 77 games hosted at MLS stadiums throughout the United States and Canada.

There are four regions in Leagues Cup (East, West, South and Central) that operate as the groups in the tournament. The Sounders were drawn with Mexican side Monterrey and conference rival Real Salt Lake in the West 2 group.

Leagues Cup will start on July 21 and end on Aug. 19. 

U.S. Open Cup: This competition is most similar to NCAA's March Madness in that it has a massive field made up of United States-based clubs affiliated with American soccer federations. Qualification for the tournament is contested by 107 amateur clubs that will eventually be whittled down round by round. MLS teams typically enter the tournament in the third round or round of 32, as the lower-tier clubs have to win several matches just to reach that point.

And like March Madness, each round in the U.S. Open Cup is single-elimination, making the margin of error tiny for a deep tournament run. One bad night can undo everything and that's the beauty of the U.S. Open Cup. 

Important games to watch

  • Sounders vs. Rapids, Feb. 26, 5 p.m. (Season opener)
  • Sounders vs. LAFC, March 18, 1 p.m. 
  • Sounders vs. Timbers, June 3, 1:30 p.m.
  • Leagues Cup: July 21-Aug. 19
  • Sounders vs. Timbers, Sept. 2, 7:30 p.m.

New kits 

The Sounders will play the 2023 season with its "Bruce Lee Kit," which honors the martial arts legend on the 50th anniversary of his death. Sounders FC said it will donate the proceeds from the first 30 days of the Bruce Lee kit sales (up to $50,000) to the Bruce Lee Foundation and Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience

The club said the sunbeam yellow accent in the kit symbolizes "the center of everything" and is associated with nature, balance and heroism. The hand-drawn dragon represents strength and power, according to the club. 

Lee's signature stamps the bottom of each jersey, including the dragon symbol, and the back of the neck features Bruce Lee's Core Symbol, an insignia created by Lee as a representation of his martial art form, Jeet Kune Do.  

Sponsor controversy

The Sounders' jersey sponsor, Providence, features prominently on the front of the Bruce Lee kit. The club's choice for a new sponsor, replacing Zulily, on the front of the has drawn backlash from fans since the Jan. 20 announcement. 

Providence, a Catholic nonprofit health care system, does not cover most abortion-related services due to a religious objection, according to the Washington Department of Health's (DOH) website. DOH pays for abortion services for people with Providence health plans, due to Providence being part of the state health insurance market.

Nine Providence-affiliated facilities were part of a lawsuit filed by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson in February 2022 for allegedly failing to ensure low-income Washington residents received discounts they were legally entitled to. 

The lawsuit alleged Providence instructed employees to not "accept the first no" from patients. The hospitals allegedly trained staff to encourage employees to continue pressing patients for payment even if they say they aren't able to pay. Employees are allowed to discuss financial assistance if patients decline to set up a payment plan. 

Emerald City Supporters, the largest Sounders fan group, posted an open letter to the team's leadership on its website titled, "What happened to our shared values?"

The Sounders shared a statement with KING 5 on Jan. 25 indicating that the team has had conversations with supporter groups and the alliance council and will continue that dialogue.

"Following Friday’s announcement," the statement begins, "our club has been actively listening to feedback from members of the Sounders community and engaging with our supporters groups and Alliance Council. We’ve held honest and productive conversations with these groups, and we’re continuing that dialogue in the coming days. Openness and transparency are key pillars of our Democracy in Sports ethos, and we always welcome direct discussion with our fans.

"We continue to be proud of our relationship with Providence and all that it can do for our region. From our earliest collective conversations, this partnership was always about a combined organizational commitment to area youth and making communities healthier places to live.

"We also need our community to know that our club values remain unchanged. We believe that every woman has the right to make healthcare decisions for themselves. Our club is also unwavering in its support for the LGBTQ+ community, and we are committed to making Washington the safest and most inclusive place to live, work and play, especially for transgender and gender-diverse youth. We are resolutely dedicated to these beliefs."


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