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Sounder at Heart MVP: Nicolas Lodeiro

The well-rounded veteran’s skill set is greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts are pretty great too.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Ever since Nicolas Lodeiro arrived midway through the 2016 season, there’s been virtually no doubt that this was his team. Even in a statistical down year — which you could argue 2019 was — the team’s fortunes still largely rested on his shoulders.

Given all that, it should come as little surprise that Sounder at Heart voters overwhelmingly picked him as the team MVP. Lodeiro won the award with 66.7% of the vote, while Jordan Morris and Stefan Frei trailed in second and third with 14.5% and 6.9% respectively. The landslide win against a talented field cements the No. 10’s place as not only the most valuable player of the year, but of the entire Schmetzer/Lagerwey era.

In his three and a half years with the team, Lodeiro has amassed 33 goals and 55 assists, more than twice the G+A haul of any other Sounder during that same stretch. This year, he led the team in that category again with seven goals and 12 assists during the regular season. The impressive display actually marked a slight downtick for the playmaker, who racked up an eye-popping eight goals and 16 assists in 2018.

But if Lodeiro’s impressive 2019 regular season stats were rendered lackluster by his own previous greatness, then his 2019 playoff performance more than made up for it. In four games against the best the league had to offer, he racked up a stunning two goals and five assists, bested only in production by Raul Ruidiaz’s other-worldly four goals and four assists over the same stretch. In a playoff run where the Sounders averaged three goals a game and finished with a +7 goal differential, their CAM and striker’s combined put-the-team-on-their-backs performance may go down as the most dominant two-player playoff effort the league has ever seen.

What’s more remarkable than the impressive peaks and rock-steady consistency of Lodeiro’s stats are that they don’t even define the best part his of play. That distinction is reserved for the work he does when he’s not touching the ball.

For all the impressive goals, assists, flicks, and tricks that Lodeiro performed in 2019 (and there were a lot), he is still only one of many elite No. 10s in the league capable of combining skill and imagination to make the impossible possible. Between Maxi Moralez, Carles Gil, Alejandro Pozuelo and Diego Valeri, MLS is full of stat-stuffing, mind-bending maestros. Even on his own team, the fleet-footed Victor Rodriguez may have matched Lodeiro’s vision and on-ball ability.

Where Lodeiro bests Rodríguez — and any other elite playmaker in the league — is his work rate. Besides ground-covered and possibly tackles-won (in which Lodeiro bests all the aforementioned players), there isn’t a great way for those of us without access to that data to measure work rate. Instead, a trip down memory lane combined with the good old-fashioned eye test can do the trick.

For that, we can revisit the Sounders late season loss away to D.C. United. The match saw the team start eight of the 11 players who would go on to start all of their playoffs games (albeit with a few players out of position). The subs filling in the other three spots were the highly experienced and capable trio of Victor Rodriguez, Jordy Delem, and Harry Shipp.

Accordingly, the box score from the day shows an evenly contested game. The Sounders matched D.C. for possession and even out-shot them 17 to 12. In reality, the result was rarely in doubt as D.C. dominated most of the game wire to wire. The only stat to accurately tell the match story was Brian Schmetzer’s favorite “duals won”, which Seattle lost 56-44.

Whether or not Lodeiro could have single-handedly turned the duals-won battle or even the overall flow of the match is tough to say, but this much is for sure: the Sounders looked toothless in attack and defense without their captain in the middle of the pitch.

Lodeiro would go on to miss one more match after D.C., a 1-0 win away to San Jose in which the team adopted a much more pragmatic defensive shape and still barely escaped with a win despite San Jose dominating them 2.4 to 1.3 in expected goals.

When Lodeiro did return, the Sounders kept their pragmatic defensive shape, but went on to flip the script and dominate their opponents with it, winning the expected goals battle in every match except against LAFC, which ended in a virtual tie. As usual, the Uruguayan all-star found himself at the heart of the system, applying soft pressure to force teams down the wings in build out play, back-pressing and high-pressing with equal parts determination and success when triggers required it, acting as one of the loan release valves from which to start the counter, and then often finishing that counter with a perfect final pass, shot, or set piece delivery.

Beyond nearly flawlessly executing his key role in the Sounders’ dominant playoff system, Lodeiro also separated himself as the captain of a team that needed to fill the massive leadership void left by Osvaldo Alonso and Chard Marshall. Here too, his versatility showed through, sometimes visibly dressing down his teammates on the field for lack of effort or execution while at other times elating in their success as the first man to congratulate another Sounder who had scored. He even showed his lighter side by celebrating his own goals with a goofy yet endearing-beyond-reason butt-slap celebration inspired by his son, Leandro.

All of this makes Lodeiro more than the Sounders 2019 MVP; it’s makes him an all-time Sounders legend. He’s the type of once in a generation leader who can inspire his teammates with skill and then put them to shame with work rate—the rare player who a coach can point to and say, “This is our top guy and he’s putting in more this much work, so what is your excuse?”

In a season that saw Jordan Morris play so well that the team reworked their philosophy to amplify his skill set; Raul Ruidiaz cement his place as the club’s most consistent goal scorer ever; Cristian Roldan continue his claim as one of the best Swiss-army-knife do-it-all players in the league; Gustav Svensson pick up more horseshit than ever before; and Stefan Frei be Stefan Frei; (big breath) Lodeiro’s season still stood out. Because in the middle of all those stars, there’s only one heartbeat that makes the system tick, and that heartbeat belongs to a man who is joyously butt-slap-tap-dancing all over his opponents’ crushed dreams.

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