How important is Nicolas Lodeiro? The Seattle Sounders are about to find out

Nicolas Lodeiro has helped sparked a stunning turnaround for the Seattle Sounders. (Photo by Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports)
Joe Nicholson/Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

How important is Nicolas Lodeiro to the Seattle Sounders? They are about to find out.

For the first time since the Uruguayan talisman arrived in Seattle, the Sounders and coach Brian Schmetzer are going to have to try and get points without a suspended Lodeiro when they face the Vancouver Whitecaps today (8 p.m. ET, FS1). The timing isn’t great, though. The Sounders are trying to complete one of the biggest turnarounds in MLS history, going from the bottom of the table just three months ago to a playoff spot.

On the face of it, Lodeiro’s impact has been obvious. Since he joined the Sounders in July, they’ve lost just once in 10 games, after having lost 11 games in 20 pre-Lodeiro. He has been the metronome in the attack that the Sounders have desperately needed, springing attackers toward goal and creating chances for everyone, himself included.

But the arrival of the former Boca Juniors playmaker is not the only thing that changed as the Sounders have found their form. At the same Lodeiro arrived, coach Sigi Schmid was fired and assistant coach Brian Schmetzer took over.

Brian Schmetzer took over the Seattle team on July 31, which happened to be Nicolas Lodeiro’s first game as a Sounder. (Photo by Jennifer Buchanan/ USA Today)

Rather than carry out Schmid’s plans, which generally centered around a messy 4-3-3 formation, Schmetzer has been keen to prove he can better use the personnel in Seattle and he switched to a lone striker formation. The Sounders lost Clint Dempsey in late August to concerns over an irregular heartbeat and the loss of the striker was a shock to the Sounders’ system, forcing their only Schmetzer/Lodeiro-era loss in his first game out. But Schmetzer stayed committed to a 4-2-3-1 with the speedy Jordan Morris as the focal point of the attack, and it has worked wonders as the team has adjusted to life without Dempsey.

The formation made more sense than Schmid’s 4-3-3 ever did, but there’s no discounting Lodeiro’s impact in making the 4-2-3-1 work. But now, Schmetzer faces his biggest tactical challenge since taking over with Lodeiro out for the first time, on top of Dempsey’s absence.

It seems like a good bet that Schmetzer is going to stick with what has worked formation-wise and not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but there is no like-for-like swap on the Sounders roster for Lodeiro. Cristian Roldan, the 21-year-old midfielder, has been surging lately and his connection with fellow youngster Morris has grown increasingly clear, which could make him a good option to take Lodeiro’s spot and try to feed balls to Morris. He’s mainly a winger, but Roldan has looked comfortable pinching inside.

Jordan Morris, left, and Cristian Roldan have developed a lot of chemistry together this season. (Photo by Jennifer Buchanan/USA Today)

The No. 10 role is a big responsibility, and Schmetzer may see it more fit to give a more experienced player that job, like 30-year-old Erik Friberg. He is a more experienced central player, but normally plays a box-to-box role that is a different animal than the attack-minded No. 10 role. Osvaldo Alonso, a 30-year-old defensive midfielder, does look comfortable pushing into the attack, but it could leave the backline too exposed to take him out of his usual role.

Whatever Schmetzer decides to do, Sunday’s match against the Whitecaps could go a long way toward answering a chicken-or-egg type question — is the Sounders’ amazing turnaround all due to Lodeiro, or Schmetzer? Of course, it may be a bit of both, and it’s a good bet that that’s the case, but together Schmetzer and Lodeiro have helped the Sounders erase a 10-point gap and jump from ninth place to sixth place on the Western Conference table in the course of 10 games.

Now, Schmetzer has to try to continue to get results with Lodeiro suspended over a silly yellow card. If he can do it on Sunday, it could be a defining win for the replacement who is trying to permanently earn the vacant coaching job.