So the Seattle Sounders have signed a new striker and excitement surrounding the new DP is palpable — almost unbearably so since we won’t get to see the “Peruvian Messi” in action for at least a couple more weeks. And since spinning around three times and then repeating “Raul Ruidiaz” five times at the TV as I watch the Sounders has yet to make the Peruvian striker magically appear on the pitch, it may be best to focus on more practical matters, such as how Ruidiaz will fit in the Sounders’ 4-2-3-1.
The short answer is that Ruidiaz will almost certainly play as the lone striker for the Sounders. Monarcas Morelia deployed him up top in a 4-2-3-1 countless times over his two-year stint for the club, and the striker bagged an eye-popping 40 goals in 72 Liga MX games. On paper, Ruidiaz can slide into the Sounders tactical approach without either party having to change much about their style.
The long answer is that Wikipedia reports Ruidiaz’s height and weight at 5’ 7”, 143 lbs, which might be generous an in comparison to Will Bruin’s listing of 6’ 2”, 192 lbs, brings up a lot of questions about how the Sounders may need to adapt in order to best serve the new signee’s strengths.
Athleticism to spare
The good news is that Ruidiaz shares more in common with the strikers who started atop the Sounders depth chart for 2018 — Bruin, Jordan Morris, and Clint Dempsey — than his stature might suggest. Like Bruin, and Dempsey to an extent, Ruidiaz is an excellent poacher who can score on crosses both as the primary target and as the first man to the second ball off a bounce or deflection. Despite his height, the spring-loaded goal scorer has the leaping ability to outduel much taller defenders in the air, especially when he slips in behind the back shoulder of his mark. Even when Ruidiaz isn’t the first to challenge the ball out of the air, his outstanding quickness and anticipation allows him to finish off deflections and knockdowns in bunches.
All that’s to say, aerial prowess may not be Ruidiaz’s top skill, but his movement and leaping ability make him dangerous enough on crosses to keep defenders honest. In order for the Sounders to take advantage of those specific skills, the team must send multiple runners in the box and force defenders to make choices on who to mark. The more chaos the Sounders can create on crosses, the more Ruidiaz’s elusive movement and explosive first step can devastate opponents.
For pace, Ruidiaz has a top speed that more closely resembles what Morris provided than what Bruin or Dempsey can offer. The new DP may still be a step behind the elite sprinting ability of Morris, but he’s more than capable of getting behind defenses consistently, and his finishing on the run is outstanding.
That’s good news for a Sounders team that has often sacrificed ability for athleticism in hopes of adding dynamism into the attack without a pacey forward. Ruidiaz’s ability to stretch the field should open up space for the Sounders’ bevy of technical midfielders, while the midfield’s ability to pick a pass should give Ruidiaz plenty opportunities to run in on goal.
Building out of the back
As if the Sounders didn’t already need to improve in this area, Ruidiaz’s arrival will make the team’s transition game all the more important. While the diminutive striker plays much bigger than his actual size in and around the box, he may struggle if asked to provide a lot of hold-up play in a match where the Sounders frequently play long. In the attacking third, Ruidiaz’s movement can dictate play and manipulate defenders, but in chasing down speculative long balls, he’ll have no head start on backlines who will be more than eager to rough up the new star player.
The Sounders can still run an efficient counterattack thanks to Ruidiaz’s speed, but more likely than not, the play would need to come from a few quick unlocking passes on the ground rather than a hopeful ball heaved from back to front. In order to accomplish such movement, the Sounders must do better at breaking opponents’ high press, an area where they’ve had particular struggles dating back to last year’s MLS Cup final against Toronto FC.
For the Sounders to break the high press, their holding mids must not only be excellent in possession, but also have the tactical awareness and technical ability to turn their mark and play positive, forward passes when possible. Furthermore, Sounders outside mids must have the ability to tuck in and create overloads and options in the half spaces further up the pitch. And last but not least, if opponents send enough numbers forward in the press, the Sounders’ more athletic outside backs will need to stretch the field long and provide an option over the top on the flanks.
When healthy, the Sounders should have enough skilled players both in the starting 11 and on the bench to effectively build out of the back and put most any opponent on the back foot. Ruidiaz’s pace up top should also make it easier for Schmetzer to field a team of players who are capable on the ball without having to worry about a lack speed going forward. Assuming the Sounders can utilize the quality in the midfield and out of the back that they have on paper, the second half of the season will yield a lot more goals than the first. If, however, Ruidiaz gets put on an island with the Sounders playing long as often as they did against the New York Red Bulls (78 times according to whoscored), don’t expect the new signing to rescue the team.