The Angle

Designated Report: Seattle Sounders

by on 13 September 2016

Jeff Rueter examines the history of the Seattle Sounders’ Designated Players in his ongoing series.

The Sounders were the first of the three Cascadian teams to take the league by storm. In their relatively short existence, the club has been one of the fastest-growing soccer clubs in the world, able to fill a football stadium routinely and boasting some of the liveliest soccer in MLS.

And yet, they signed Nelson Valdez to a DP deal.

For fans of the league, Valdez is something of an anti-“human victory cigar”. Still, they mark another club that’s joined the league after the Designated Player rule was installed. With a short timeline to become competitive, how has Seattle used the DP to their advantage?

All transfer sum numbers from Transfermarkt.
All salaries thanks to MLS Players Union surveys.
An asterisk (*) indicates a player who signed their DP deal mid-tenure with club.

Previous installments:

Introduction to Series and Updating Chart of Profiled Clubs
DC United: C
FC Dallas: C+
Columbus Crew: B
Sporting KC: B-
New York Red Bulls: B-
San Jose Earthquakes: C
New England Revolution: C+
Los Angeles Galaxy: B+
Chicago Fire: C-
Colorado Rapids: B-
Real Salt Lake: B
Chivas USA: B-
Toronto FC: B+

Seattle Sounders 
(founded 2009)

FAVORITE FRUITLESS RUMOR: Ivica Olic (September 2015)

Freddie Ljungberg (2009-2012)

Age When Signed: 31
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,300,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.411

The Swedish winger came up the ranks with Halmstads BK, making his senior debut at 17 years old. By 21, he was one of the most sought-after players in world soccer, with clubs like Barcelona, Chelsea, and Parma reaching out to Halmstads trying to lock down Ljungberg. Ultimately, Arsenal swooped in, purchasing him for under $4 million in 1998. He was a regular starter by 2000, working his way toward “club legend” status over the course of 216 games. He netted 46 goals with the Gunners, helping the team to some of their most successful seasons. In 2007, Ljungberg left Arsenal for West Ham, figuring to elevate his profile by standing out from his teammates. After one season and 25 games (scoring just 2 goals and reportedly being offered almost $4 million to tear up his contract and walk), he went on a six-month hiatus, with many across the world speculating that he would retire. He left West Ham for $7 million, and he was linked to Italian clubs like Milan and Roma.

DP Years:
Instead he was lured by the expansion Sounders for their inaugural season, becoming their first DP.  After recovering from an offseason hip injury, Ljungberg hit the ground running, scoring twice in the opening few months and adding a number of crucial assists. He was selected to the MLS All-Star starting lineup as the league’s leading vote-getter, but a series of migraines and hamstring injuries kept him from a full slate of matches. Ljungberg was selected to the MLS Best XI at the end of the year after 2 goals and 9 assists, leading Seattle to third place in the Western Conference. His form took a dive in 2010, however, and Ljungberg was traded to Chicago in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft (a pick used on Servando Carrasco, most famous for being Alex Morgan’s husband).

In a fifteen game stint with Chicago, Ljungberg scored twice and added seven assists. However, the Fire missed the playoffs for just the second time in the club’s history, as a core of Ljungberg, Brian McBride, and C.J. Brown wasn’t enough to get above the red line. Ljungberg announced that he would be departing, and he left MLS once and for all. Ljungberg landed a seven-match spot with Celtic before cashing in with Japan’s Shimizu S-Pulse and India’s Mumbai City. He retired in 2014 to take on an ambassadorial role with Arsenal, and in July Ljungberg was announced as a coach for the Gunners’ U-16 system.

Grade: B
Still possessing enough in the tank to lead an expansion team to the postseason, Ljungberg proved to be a major contributor on the pitch. A failing bill of health kept him from making a major impact after his first half-season, but it was an impressive run while he was on.

Fredy Montero (2009-2012)

Age When Signed: 21
Average Base Salary per Season: $427,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.771

Montero came up with Colombian side Deportivo Cali, making his senior debut at 18. Still raw, he had his breakout season while on loan to Atlético Huila, scoring 13 goals and earning the league’s Golden Boot in 2006. Finally getting minutes at Cali, Montero led the league in goals in 2008 with 16.

DP Years: 
Looking to increase his playing time in a growing league, Montero went on a two-year loan to Seattle for their first season. He became an instant fan favorite due to his high work rate and unparalleled athleticism, He won MLS Player of the Month in March and finished the year with 12 goals and 7 assists, good for the league’s Newcomer of the Year award. He followed it up with a 10-goal, 10-assist showing in 2010, dictating a full transfer to Seattle at the end of the season. Over the next two seasons, he would score another 25 goals and add 17 assists, making him one of the marquee players in the league at a young age. While he signed a multi-year extension with the club in 2013, he went on loan to Millonarios for the season before going on loan to Sporting CP in July.

Montero was signed in full by Sporting in January, completing a $1.55 million transfer. He scored a hat trick in his league debut, serving as an endearing welcome to his new club. He ended up with 14 goals across 51 appearances, respectable but not close to his prolific record in Seattle. He signed with Chinese SuperLeague club Tianjin Teda in February 2016 for $6 million and has 6 goals in 19 games.

Grade: A
Before Fabian Castillo took off in Dallas and Giovinco set Toronto on fire, Montero was an absolute phenom in Seattle. He served as the spark plug for the expansion Sounders, igniting the fan base with his team play on the field. He’s something of a cult hero in Seattle, and any transfer window introduces the hope that he’ll return to Cascadia someday.

Alvaro Fernandez (2010-2012)

Age When Signed: 24
Average Base Salary per Season: $300,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.444

Fernandez kicked off his career with Uruguayan side Atenas at 20, developing his trade as an attacking midfielder with a 2007 move to Montevideo Wanderers. He spent a brief stint with Puebla before returning to his home country for Nacional before short loan stints to Portugal and Brazil.

DP Year:
At 24, he became the third DP in Seattle Sounders history, coming off the heels of an impressive four-appearance stint with Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He debuted on July 31, adding two goals and an assist down the stretch to help secure another post-season berth for Seattle. He was in full swing for 2011, scoring 9 goals in his second season with the club while earning a reputation as a technically dangerous attacker. He slipped a bit in 2012, with 2 goals and 2 assists by July.

Looking to buck their growing trend of failing DP signings, Chicago acquired Fernandez from Seattle for allocation money. He made 13 appearances with the Fire that year, scoring twice as the club returned to the playoffs. He was sent on loan to Qatari club Al Rayyan in 2013 and to Nacional later that year. At this point, the logistics of Fernandez’s contract status becomes murky. Many sources say his contract is still owned by Chicago and that he’s been on loan with Gimnasia since 2014. However, the league lists his contract as being finished after the 2013 year. Either way, Fernandez returned to Seattle this summer and has started twice among three appearances, looking to help fuel Seattle in their quest for an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Grade: B-
Consistency was always a bit of an issue for Fernandez, but he added some quality in the midfield. He always brought his best for the CONCACAF Champions League fixtures, proving to be dangerous against top competition. He too is something of a cult figure in Seattle, but his on-the-field play doesn’t quite match his legend.

Blaise Nkufo (2010)

Age When Signed: 35
Average Base Salary per Season: $480,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.483

Something of a late-bloomer, Nkufo was a journeyman during his time. All told, Nkufo spent time with Lausanne Sport, FC Echallens, Al-Arabi, Yverdon-Sport FC,Grasshopper Club Zürich, AC Lugano, FC Lucerne, Mainz 05, and Hannover 96 between 1992 and 2003. Never sticking for more than two years, the 6’1 striker finally stuck with FC Twente, making 225 appearances in 7 years with the Swiss side and scoring 114 goals. He made his World Cup debut for the Swiss in 2010, ultimately held scoreless in the tournament.

DP Years:
Nkufo was actually signed by Seattle in March but didn’t join the club until after the World Cup, making his debut in July. He had 5 goals in 11 games down the stretch but failed to make the score sheet in the postseason. He formally retired after terminating his contract in March 2011.

Grade: C-
While his goalscoring record was respectable in the final third of the season, Nkufo never became the gritty target forward that Sigi Schmid needed him to be. Not responsible for a playoff defeat singly, he did nothing to help the club as they looked to get over the hump.

Mauro Rosales (2011-2013)

Age When Signed: 31
Average Base Salary per Season: $200,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.681

The Argentine attacking midfielder starting with Newell’s Old Boys, making his debut at 18 and scoring 30 goals across 119 matches. He signed with Dutch giants Ajax in 2004, earning a respectable 63 appearances over three seasons and refining his game as a distributor. At this point, he also made 10 caps for the Argentina national team, scoring the match-winning goal in a 2006 World Cup qualifier against Peru. He moved on to home country side River Plate after a $2 million transfer fee, again earning 64 appearances in 3 seasons. While he was close to signing with Mexican club Querétero in January 2011, the deal fell through.

DP Years: 
He went on trial with Seattle Sounders, ultimately signing on and scoring 5 goals while assisting on 13 more en route to winning MLS Newcomer of the Year. He came back for another strong showing in 2012, with 3 goals and 13 assists as the spark plug of Seattle’s attack. He provided excellent service on the wing for Seattle, combining with Fernandez and Montero for a lethal attack. He had 4 goals and 8 assists in 2013, starting to show his age while being pressured for playing time by new talent.

Rosales was traded to Chivas USA before 2014 to free up a DP slot. True to form, Rosales acted as a chief distributor when healthy. In 21 appearances (16 starts) with Chivas, Rosales added 8 assists, providing impressive and consistent key passes to Torres and co. He was traded in August to Vancouver for Nigel Reo-Coker. Rosales finished off his DP deal with Vancouver before deciding to restructure his deal before 2015, avoiding the Re-Entry Draft. He was traded this past February for Blas Pérez, and has been a steady contributor off the bench for FC Dallas.

Grade: B
Rosales showed an impressive work rate despite being on the other side of 30. Still lethal in attack, he was the key distributor for an increasingly electric Sounders team.

Eddie Johnson (2012-2013)

Age When Signed: 28
Average Base Salary per Season: $150,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.655

Johnson was one of many Next Big Things from the United States in the early 21st century. He was one of the youngest MLSers in league history, signing a contract with the league at the age of 17  and starting off with FC Dallas. He turned down a $5 million move to Benfica in 2005, ultimately going to Kansas City for a couple of years before heading off to Fulham. With only 19 full-team appearances and no goals, Johnson was loaned to Cardiff City, Greek side Aris, and Preston North End.

DP Year:
Signed before the 2012 season, EddieMania was in full swing from the start. He scored 14 goals in the free-shooting Sounders’ attack, earning Comeback Player of the Year as a result. As his international playing time skyrocketed (15 caps in 2013), he missed a fair amount of time for the club, still scoring 9 goals in 21 matches. He also added the match-winner against Tigres in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal, marking the first time an MLS team had knocked out a Liga MX side.

Feeling he had earned a pay raise, Johnson was hoping for a new contract in Seattle. However, the club didn’t have the funds available to do so. This is where things get sad real fast. He was traded to DC United for TAM before the 2014 season and was seen to be a major piece in the team’s revamp. He got his final two USMNT call-ups that year for World Cup qualifiers and was a dark horse candidate for the World Cup side before missing out. In the league, he had seven goals and three assists in 26 games (22 starts). It turns out that he had a heart condition and had been fighting for a recovery to full playing fitness. However, it wasn’t in the cards, and Johnson retired at the end of 2015, getting a major ovation from many in the US Soccer community. He moved to Orlando, where he plays the occasional charity friendly between coaching kids in the Orlando area.

Grade: B+
On a respectable salary, Johnson was an absolute steal for Seattle. Still in his prime, he was able to partner with Montero to pick apart opposing defenses at will. Even between international call-ups, he was one of the most consistent attackers the club has ever had.

Christian Tiffert (2012)

Age When Signed: 30
Average Base Salary per Season: $600,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.276

The German midfielder bounced around Europe for the first half of his career, most notably stopping at Stuttgart (136 matches), MSV Duisburg (75), and 1 FC Kaiserslautern (64). With Kaiserslautern, he would lead the Bundesliga in assists with 17 in the 2011/12 season. Never earning a full senior call-up, Tiffert was seen as one of the more underrated distributors in the Bundesliga.

DP Years: 
Fresh off of a career year, Tiffert crossed the Atlantic in the summer 2012 window to join Seattle. He became an instant starter, taking over for the departed Fernandez in August and starting 11 matches down the home stretch. He added three assists, but a saved penalty in the U.S. Open Cup Final against Sporting KC helped seal the team’s fate in defeat. He started all four of the club’s playoff games, adding an assist before the club’s knockout in the Western Conference Final.

Tiffert had his contract bought out by the club in March 2013. He’s played in the German lower divisions since then, failing to make it with a Bundesliga side and appearing to have seen his best days as he nears retirement.

Grade: D
Tiffert never quite gelled in Seattle, serving as a slow component of a lightning-paced attack. He failed to pick up the slack left by Fernandez’s departure and didn’t seem to meet the rigor of MLS in terms of physicality and the travel schedule. Seattle had bigger and better things waiting for them.

Obafemi Martins (2013-2015)

Age When Signed: 28
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,740,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.966

Martins was one of the hottest products Nigeria had ever produced, coming up in the Inter Milan academy. He made his senior debut at 16 for Inter, scoring 28 goals across 5 seasons. He was transferred to Newcastle United in 2006, scoring another 28 goals in three years as the club contended for European placement. He bounced around for the next three years of his prime, never quite settling with Rubin Kazan, Birmingham City, or Levante. Though the club failed to make the 2010 World Cup, the diminutive striker still has 18 goals in 41 international caps.

DP Years:
The Sounders brought Martins into the fold on March 11, 2013, after paying his $4 million buyout with Levante. He was eased into action, playing just 82 minutes across the first 4 matches of his contract, before he was truly unleashed on MLS, scoring 4 goals in his next 5 starts and finishing the year with 8 goals and 4 assists. He truly settled into a groove as Clint Dempsey joined the fray late in 2013, and “ObaDeuce” was an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses over the next two years. Martins was the MVP runner-up in 2014, scoring 17 goals and adding 13 assists while scoring the Goal of the Year for a chip. Injuries cut into his 2015 season, but he still scored 15 times and assisted on 6 more in 21 games of action.

Rumors starting flying this past winter that Martins was targeted by many clubs, and at first this was dismissed. However, Martins surprised many MLS fans by leaving Seattle with two years left on his contract to join striker Demba Ba on Chinese SuperLeague side Shainghai Greenland Shenhua. Seattle received $2 million from the transfer, helping them restock ahead of the season. He scored in a late substitute appearance in May, and through 17 appearances he’s scored 5 goals.

Grade: A+
Martins may be the most underrated DP in league history. While he played in Dempsey’s shadow most of the time, his pace and physicality made him one of the tougher marks in the league. Across three seasons, he averaged nearly a goal or assist per game, and his G+A/90 rate is fourth all-time for DPs with at least 10 games played–only behind Giovinco, Keane, and Drogba.

Clint Dempsey (2013-Current)

Age When Signed: 30
Average Base Salary per Season: $4,413,004
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.846

There haven’t been many better soccer players from the United States than Clint Dempsey. After three years at Furman University, he signed a Generation Adidas contract with MLS, was drafted by New England, and promptly won the Rookie of the Year in 2004 to the tune of 7 goals in 24 games. He made the MLS Best XI in 2005 and 2006 before he was purchased by Fulham for a record-breaking fee for an MLS player. He became a club legend, scoring 50 goals in the Premier League with The Cottagers including a goal that saved them from relegation in 2007. He was transferred to Tottenham in 2012, scoring 7 goals in one year. Meanwhile, he’s the second-leading scorer in USMNT history with 52 goals, just 5 behind recent Galaxy signing Landon Donovan.

DP Years:
I can’t recommend this piece by Grant Wahl enough. The 72 hours from when Dempsey was rumored to be coming to MLS until he signed pen to paper were an absolute gong-show, with Twitter filling up with reports of Dempsey coming through the Seattle airport, sparking the #DempseyWatch hashtag before he was unveiled to 40,000 fans. His cup of coffee in 2013 wasn’t as filled with fanfare, scoring once in 650 minutes down the stretch. With a full offseason to gel with Martins and Co., Dempsey scored 15 goals and added 10 assists in 26 games in 2014–all while featuring in the World Cup mid-season. 2015 was interrupted by the Gold Cup but he still added 10 goals and 10 assists. He was on 8 goals and 2 assists this year as well before an irregular heartbeat was discovered in August. He’s been out for the past two weeks as he looks to get his health back in place.

Grade: A+
The Dempsey signing really kicked off the so-called MLS 3.0 era. Dempsey was the first major player coming from a European club in their prime to call MLS home. Since then, the likes of Bradley, Giovinco, Altidore, and Dos Santos have followed this path, and the league is far better off because of it. His play on the field has justified his salary, and his continued contributions for the US Soccer community can’t be overstated.

Get well soon, Deuce.

Osvaldo Alonso (2014-2015)

Age When Signed: 28
Average Base Salary per Season: $400,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.037

Alonso has a fascinating story that this Seattle Times piece tells well. The condensed version: the Cuban midfield enforcer played 42 games with Pinar del Rio in his homeland before defecting to the United States in 2007. After impressing Chivas USA on a trial, he was low-balled with a contract offer of $12,900 and opted to sign with Charleston Battery. In one year, he was named the team MVP and won the USL-1 Rookie of the Year before he was signed by the Sounders in 2009. He’s one of the most successful players in club history, with injuries being his only real barrier from starting every match the Sounders have played. He’s played 220 matches (215 starts) and has played at least 20 matches each year. He was rewarded for his performance and dedication to the club with a pay raise before the 2014 season, ultimately bought down by allocation money so the club could acquire Nelson Valdez.

Grade: B
An instance of giving a player a needed raise. Alonso is one of the best defensive midfielders in the league and the new contract kept him from the reach of lucrative offers in Europe and South America. A savvy move by the club.

Nelson Valdez (2015-Current)

Age When Signed: 31
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,200,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.229

The physical Paraguayan striker came up with Tembetary before he was signed at 17 by Werder Bremen in 2001. He made his senior debut in 2002, scoring 21 goals in 80 first-team matches while splitting time with their second team. After a solid showing in the 2006 World Cup, he was sold to giants Borussia Dortmund for $5 million, wearing the number 9 jersey. Despite his high work rate and creativity, he failed to score until May 5 in one of the final matches of the season. Despite getting 115 appearances in 4 years with Dortmund, Valdez scored just 15 goals. He was sold to Spanish side Hercules for $4 million and promptly scored a brace against Barcelona in his first match. After an 8-goal season, he bounced around Rubin Kazan, Valencia, Al Jazira, Olympiacos, and Eintracht Frankfurt between 2011-2015. Internationally, he has 13 goals in 76 appearances.

DP Years:
Again, Valdez is seen as a very physical striker with a high workrate. Therefore, Seattle was hoping he would add another level of grit to their thriving ObaDeuce-led frontline. Indeed, he scored in his debut in a 4-0 thrashing of Orlando City…and hasn’t scored since. With 1181 minutes to his name in Seattle, Valdez has 1 goal and 2 assists to show for it, never gelling with the pieces around him and becoming something of a red mark against the club’s playoff chances this year.

Grade: F

Well said, Eddie.

Nicolas Lodeiro (2016-Current)

Age When Signed: 27
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,740,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 1.286

Lodeiro came up the ranks with Uruguayan side Nacional in 2007 at 18 years old. He became a regular player before 20 and was ultimately sold to Ajax, joining Luis Suarez but failing to earn regular minutes at the powerhouse. He moved to Botafogo in Brazil, helping the club return to the Copa Libertadores and continuing to refine his game as a true #10. He was transferred to Corinthians for $4.5 million and moved in 2015 to Boca Juniors. Meanwhile, he has 43 caps with the Uruguayan national team, scoring thrice and representing the club at the past two World Cups.

DP Year:
Still in his prime, Lodeiro has set the league afire quicker than any player in recent memory. He’s already tripled Valdez’s totals in goals and assists in just seven games, with his free-kick ability increasing the fear of every defense he faces. His creativity and work rate are matched by being able to complete his attempts, and he’s quickly become one of the most dangerous players in the league.

Grade: B*
If he keeps this up through the end of the season and gets Seattle into the playoffs, he’s an instant A. Seven games isn’t much of a track record, but there hasn’t been a better player in the league since July than Lodeiro.

Seattle Sounders Recap:

Average Signing Age: 28.7
Average Base Salary: $1,039,167
Average Grade: B

There are only two outliers to Seattle’s relative dominance in the DP field: Nkufo and Valdez. For Nkufo, it was much more of an off-field and crunchtime issue, not to mention him forcing his way out after just 11 games. For Valdez, it was a track record of poor scoring in many other leagues becoming actualized in MLS.

Other than that, this club is a standard-bearer for the DP rule. Players are in their prime (or about to enter it), can score goals and set up teammates, and are generally good locker room guys. Given that they’ve hit on at least 9 of their 12, it isn’t luck. There’s a reason this team hasn’t missed the MLS Cup Playoffs since their expansion…yet.

Next week: Philadelphia Union

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