The beauty of this year’s Seattle Sounders squad is the depth and danger at virtually every position. The hydra that has become synonymous with the Sounders attack now extends across the midfield — to help the team win and possess the ball — and along the back line, which is riding a 10-hour shutout streak during the MLS playoffs.
Head coach Brian Schmetzer instilled a “next man up” mentality that means no matter who steps onto the field, they understand their role and how they fit with the 10 other players in the side — and are ready to seize the opportunity and show their value to this team. Case in point: Tyler Miller’s performance in Leg 1 of the Western Conference Championship.
This philosophy, and the team’s recent ability to execute it, is one of the main reasons fans are optimistic the Sounders can get the best of a Toronto side that has put in a season that, up to now, has been one of the most dominant in MLS history.
While this team is still best thought of as the sum of its parts, there is one player I think is key to breaking down Toronto’s stingy defense: newcomer Victor Rodriguez.
The 28-year-old midfielder joined the team in late August, but he has already had a tremendous impact on the Sounders attack. In his first game against Vancouver — on the road, no less — Rodriguez won a first-half penalty that was converted by Nicolas Lodeiro and almost found the scoresheet on a free kick that required a world-class save by Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted.
Since that outing, Rodriguez has appeared in nine matches, including postseason play, and earned three goals and three assists. But his impact extends far beyond statistics. His movement off the ball — and ability to pull defenders — might be Rodriguez’s most important trait come December 9, when Seattle steps onto BMO Field.
Here are four reasons Rodriguez could be the key to earning back-to-back MLS Cup trophies.
1. Victor pushes the attack forward
Earlier this season, there were matches where the Sounders dominated possession but struggled to find the back of the net. Fans rightfully were frustrated. An attack with Jordan Morris, Clint Dempsey, and Lodeiro should have had more firepower, but it often felt like the ball was moving laterally, or from the midfield back to defense, far too often.
While Rodriguez wasn’t the sole game-changer for Seattle these last few months, his desire to take on defenders and move the ball forward in the attack are just what the team needed. Let’s take a look at his passing and dribbles against Houston in the two-match playoff series.
The left graphic are his passes, shots, and dribbles in the first match, where Rodriguez replaced Clint Dempsey for the second half. The right graphic features the same actions from his performance at home against the Dynamo, where Rodriguez slotted in as right winger before moving to a center attacking role to close out the match.
Those passes in Seattle’s final third are what excite me the most. Rodriguez doesn’t just move the ball forward from a defensive position on the field. He was looking for pockets of space behind Houston’s defense — close to goal. Toronto’s defense has holes, and Victor might be just the guy to help find and exploit them.
2. Tracking Nico is no longer enough
Fans have grown accustomed to seeing Lodeiro run all over the field during a match (seriously, I want to see the GPS data on that guy). But earlier this year, it felt like opponents figured out how to manage his non-stop movement. If they could just track Nico effectively, or in many cases foul him, they could halt the Sounders attack.
While Rodriguez doesn’t cover as much ground as Lodeiro in a match, he moves seamlessly with the Uruguayan midfielder to create and slot into space. If Lodeiro cuts outside, Rodriguez is quickly occupying the space he just left in the middle of the field. If he sees an opportunity to pull defenders in and expose the flanks, he’ll dribble toward the middle of the field.
As Realio notes in his player ratings after Leg 1 of the MLS Western Conference Championships, “With Nico being chased around, Rodriguez became the fulcrum of the Seattle push and he excelled in moving the ball quickly through the middle to transition to the attack.”
In the home game against Houston, by cutting inside at key moments, Rodriguez often pulled an outside back into the middle of the field — leaving Joevin Jones with acres of space on the left side of the field. This led to chance after chance from the left wing.
The quick vision and dynamic movement Rodriguez brings to this team complements players like Dempsey, Lodeiro, and Jones so well. We saw what that can look like against the Dynamo. It’s possible they can bring the same dynamism against Toronto.
3. Underrated defensive effort
When Rodriguez joined the Sounders in August, he said, “Obviously [defending is] not my strong suit — I’m a small guy — but I don’t shy away from tackles; if what I need to do is be there and get into 50/50 tackles, that’s fine by me.”
Boy, was Victor selling himself short. While he might not match up with players physically, Rodriguez has been an integral part of Seattle’s defensive positioning and pressure. He is quick to rush back defensively to slow down the opposition’s attack and, as Realio points out, Rodriguez amassed a team-high five tackles in the last match against Houston.
The defensive play that impressed me most happened when many people had their eyes on Stefan Frei. It occurred in September when the Sounders faced the Vancouver Whitecaps at home. Fredy Montero lined up to take a free kick just outside the box. He whipped the ball around the wall and it was headed toward the upper near-post corner. Frei, amazingly, got a hand on it and wrapped the ball up before Vancouver could get to it.
But another player was tracking back to provide cover: Rodriguez. It is easy to get distracted on free kicks and forget to trail your mark on a rebound. As you’ll see in the video, a few Sounders made this mistake. Not Rodriguez. He was there to shield onrushing Vancouver players and allow Frei to regain possession.
4. Cool heads prevail
We probably haven’t seen enough of Rodriguez to get a full sense for how he reacts to pressure or tense situations, but his demeanor over these last three months has presented a player who is calm and doesn’t let the game state affect him.
This MLS Cup will likely be a physical affair, and both teams will be hungry for a win — especially after the way last year’s final went down. Having a player like Rodriguez on the field, who not only brings the talent, the vision, and the drive, but also composure under pressure, is only going to benefit Seattle.
So, while any player could step up and put in an MVP-worthy performance, Victor Rodriguez could arguably be the most important player for the Sounders on Saturday. He might not score a goal. He might not even register a shot on goal. But he’ll likely help make the whole team around him better.
That, my friends, is what an MVP does.