At the end of the 2015 campaign, the Seattle Sounders looked like a stock car that had been run into the wall one too many times. It was still able to get around the track most days, but the breakdowns due to wear and tear were happening too often.
By the time FC Dallas dispatched Seattle on penalties in the Western Conference semifinals last November, the Sounders were running out of bodies. Leo Gonzalez, Brad Evans and Ozzie Alonso were out injured. Marco Pappa and Nelson Valdez were less than 100 percent. At one point midfielder Cristian Roldan had to play left-back. The offseason mantra was simple: While a complete overhaul wasn't needed, Seattle needed to get younger, faster and more durable.
"When we were kind of planning for the season, we had Clint [Dempsey] and Oba [Martins] and those were kind of the mainstays," Seattle interim manager Brian Schmetzer said via telephone. "We had guys like Alonso and Evans. We had signed some guys at the end of last year -- Andreas Ivanschitz, Valdez, we had Erik Friberg coming back -- so we knew we had an experienced group of guys.
"It was like, 'Let's win this now with Oba and Deuce together.' But [then-manager Sigi Schmid] knew it, I knew it, Dave Tenney our sports science guy, he knew it -- we knew we needed a couple of guys to break through just in case there's injuries, in case players leaving like Oba. We just needed to be good managers of our squad. The squad rotation, squad depth, building a team that can win consistently throughout the years, you need the right balance of senior guys and young guys."
Heading into the regular-season finale against Real Salt Lake on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), it's clear the Sounders have moved in that direction. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, when weighted for playing time, Seattle was the oldest team in MLS last year at 29.4 years. The Sounders are now the fifth oldest at 28.9 years. That may not seem like a big change, but Seattle was one of just four MLS teams to see its weighted average age decline this season (the others were the Chicago Fire, Toronto FC and FC Dallas).
The drop is due in part to the considerable mileage Seattle has gotten out of three younger players who have contributed in vastly different ways: left-back Joevin Jones (25), midfielder Roldan (21) and forward Jordan Morris (21). Jones has taken over from the now-departed Gonzalez and has impressed Schmetzer with his one-v-one defending as well as his ability to get forward. Roldan has emerged as an able sidekick to Alonso in the center of midfield, while Morris has largely met the hype that accompanied him at the beginning of his rookie season, scoring 12 goals.
Their respective paths into the starting lineup have been varied as well. Jones saw plenty of minutes last season in Chicago, so he had already acclimated to MLS. When he was acquired in a preseason trade with the Fire, he slotted right in.
"Jones is so quick, he's got such good reactions, that he's really an effective defender when it comes to those one-v-one situations," Schmetzer said.
The preseason departure of Martins to the Chinese Super League meant that Morris was thrown into the proverbial deep end, a scenario that was complicated further by Dempsey's absences due to national team duty and injury.
"Jordan has had to shoulder a ton of responsibility," Schmetzer said. "But he's going to get better, much better, because we threw him directly into the fire by necessity, and thank god it worked out because those are the guys, you throw them into the fire too quickly and it might come back to bite you in the butt a little bit. It might stymie his development; they might not be strong enough mentally. There's a ton of things that can go wrong there, but luckily Jordan has broad shoulders and he's done OK."
Roldan's progression has been the most logical. When he was selected in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft out of the University of Washington, Roldan was not expected to play right away. He earned the occasional start but spent most of the season backing up Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda. That allowed Roldan to progress more slowly and soak up the accumulated knowledge of those around him.
"Every day in training Gonzalo would pull Cristian aside and help him with little details," Schmetzer said. "So Cristian's development is what I would almost call a best-case scenario. You get a talented kid in there, he plays some minutes as a rookie, you've got some veterans who are teaching him the ropes, and then you saw what happened this year. His transformation has been a real success story."
The 2016 season has seen Roldan take on more responsibility, and he's shown a greater level of tactical awareness. Schmetzer noted that Alonso's recent uptick in offensive production is due in part to Roldan's recognizing more quickly when and where to position himself when Alonso goes forward.
Bringing young players along is by no means a linear process. Some never make that breakthrough. For those that might, there is a balance that must be struck between holding them accountable and giving them a chance to rebound from their mistakes.
"We don't murder them, we don't show them every single bad play of every game that they play," Schmetzer said of his approach to developing young players. "But the day after a game when we watch film ... We. Watch. Film. We see good clips and we see bad clips. And those guys know -- I tell them, we message them -- 'Look, we're not trying to be critical here; we're trying to learn. This is all about learning.' So you have to be able to accept constructive criticism. You're managing that so you don't kill their confidence because they are still young pros."
Schmetzer's approach requires delivering criticism in different ways. He said he can be "really critical" of Roldan because the player reacts to strong criticism with a determination to never make the same mistake twice. With a forward like Morris, it's all about maintaining confidence and talking through things. Jones is a more laid-back character.
"These three personalities, they're all different, and it just makes my job interesting," Schmetzer said. "When you sit down and watch film with them, you've got to maneuver yourself based on their personalities."
All three players still have more upside. In a critique reminiscent of when Newcastle United defender DeAndre Yedlin was with the club, Schmetzer noted that Jones needs more field awareness when his man doesn't have the ball. Roldan needs to improve his range of passing, while Morris needs to work on his left foot and be more clinical in front of the goal.
But the trio is contributing plenty now, a critical component given that Dempsey is out for the season and others like Evans and Ivanschitz are nursing injuries. And if Seattle can survive Decision Day and make the playoffs, those three will help the team cope with the physical postseason battles to come.