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Open competition for spots has helped Sounders improve

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With familiar faces returning and new ones joining, everyone is fighting for time.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

TUKWILA, Wash. — Sounders training sessions have looked lively this week. High energy, up-tempo and very competitive. It’s for good reason; with Roman Torres and Gustav Svensson back in the fold, Kelvin Leerdam healthy and Raúl Ruidíaz in the mix, virtually every spot is an open competition.

Head coach Brian Schmetzer acknowledged as much when asked about his center back situation for Saturday’s match against Vancouver.

“It’s competition,” Schmetzer said. “Guys that are performing well in training and games will get the starts. It’s three games in one week, so there will be opportunities that present themselves to players and they have to take hold of those opportunities. Competition is healthy. Competition is good. It drives the group and if Roman is better, then he plays. If Kim is better, he’ll play.”

Even someone like Clint Dempsey has been forced to earn minutes in a way he never has before, having come off the bench in his past two appearances.

“Clint is the same,” Schmetzer said about Dempsey’s role in road games vs. home games. “On the road, how we use Clint, he has every chance as starting as well as the rest of them. It’s almost like its preseason again. We’ve got one new player, plus some guys coming back from the World Cup. We have to figure out how all that works.”

Most of the lineup questions swirl around Ruidíaz. Will the striker cause Schmetzer to switch to a two-forward formation? If so, who starts alongside him? What happens to the midfield?

Will Bruin, who leads the team with five goals, is not the sort of player to willingly cede playing time if he can help it. For Bruin, playing alongside Ruidiaz opens up more opportunities for the team to score goals.

“I envision it excelling both our games,” Bruin said Thursday. “I can be the target guy and take some of the beating and that should open some space for (Ruidiaz) in behind or underneath. We’ll see how the lineup goes, I have no idea how it’s going to be.”

From the formation switches the team cycled through at training, it didn’t seem as though Schmetzer had totally made up his mind yet, either. Still, for a club that was down to 16 healthy outfield players a few weeks ago, the multitude of possibilities seems to suggest an impending upswing for the 10th-place Sounders.

“I’m extremely pleased to have more options,” Schmetzer said. “It’s good to have. You see the training rhythm is a little sharper, a little crisper because Raul’s here and everybody wants to play. When you’re talking about Raul, how do you use him? As a starter, do you bring him off the bench? He’s only had four or five training days, so how do you incorporate that? The road results (last week) were pretty good, so are you rewarding that group of players that’s undefeated in three? Some questions you have to answer, but you’ll definitely see him.”