Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz are combining to have one of the most underrated seasons as an attacking duo in Sounders history. Individually, their goals plus assists per 90 add up to rank amongst the most prolific rates of any Sounders’ attacking pair. (Other all time bests include Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey in 2014 and 2015 and Nicolas Lodeiro and Ruidiaz in 2018.) Together, they’ve guided the Sounders to an eye-popping 2.25 points per game whenever both have started at the same time in 2019.
In those matches, the Sounders have averaged 2.25 goals per game and a goal differential of .92 per game. Extrapolated over the course of a season, those rates come out to 76.5 goals scored and a goal differential of 31.2, easily besting any previous Sounders season, and comparable in league history only to Toronto FC in 2017 and LAFC this season.
While it’s unrealistic to expect any teams’ two most dynamic players to start every match of a single season, it’s equally worth noting that Morris and Ruidiaz have started a far lower percentage of matches together this year than Dempsey and Martins did in 2014 or Sebastian Giavinco and Jozy Altidore in 2017 or Carlos Vela and Deigo Rossi in 2019.
In other words, the Sounders aren’t as good as the best teams in MLS history, but they are probably better than their current record shows. More importantly, they are a far better team when Ruidiaz and Morris are on the field together. Here’s why:
Last year, the Sounders were at their best when they moved as a team, using all 11 players to dictate space and tempo on the field. Their outside backs got forward, their outside mids tucked in, their holding mids sat back and erased opposition attack through the middle of the field, and Lodeiro moved wherever Lodeiro wanted to move. The whole set-up was fluid – equal parts conservative and dynamic, free-flowing and organized. It was also entirely reliant on two players who controlled time and space on the field as well as any in league history: Osvaldo Alonso, the metronome in the midfield, and Chad Marshall, the anchor in the back.
Those two players are gone now, and the most impactful addition to the Sounders roster this year has been Jordan Morris returning from injury. Morris is neither an anchor nor a metronome; he is a tornado, a singular force cutting through solid structure with frightening ease. As such, the Sounders do not control tempo as well as they once did, but they create goals with a lot less interchange and movement than they once required.
For his part, Ruidiaz scores goals through beautiful build-up and ruthless counter-attacks alike. As a “fox-in-the-box” type forward, the chase is far less important to him than the kill. Since he doesn’t need to involve himself in build-up play to find the rhythm of the game as many forwards do, he can adapt to many different systems of play. And though the Peruvian striker flourishes on good service in the box, he is capable of changing games through individual flashes of brilliance as well.
The ability of Morris and Ruidiaz to create something out of nothing has been extra important for the Sounders this year as the team has needed to keep more numbers home defensively to make up for their leakiness at the back.
While both Morris and Ruidiaz have used their individual ability to change games in which the team has lacked cohesion and rhythm in the attack, neither has performed as well when the other is out of the lineup. This shows up in both their individual statistics and the team’s results. Jordan Morris’ goals plus assists per game is .92 with Ruidiaz in the lineup and .50 without. Ruidiaz is averaging goals plus assists per game of 1.00 with Morris in the lineup and .66 without. The Sounders’ average 2.25 points per game in the 12 games that both have started and only 1.09 points per games in the 11 games that only one has started.
Morris helps Ruidiaz the way any player helps Ruidiaz: by unbalancing backlines and putting service into the box. More often than not in the last year since Rudiaz joined the Sounders, the team has accomplished that through intricate interchange from central-leaning wide players (Victor Rodriguez, Harry Shipp, Cristian Roldan), overlapping fullbacks (Brad Smith, Kelvin Leerdam), and the free-roaming Lodeiro. Recently though, as the Sounders have traded the possession needed for intricate combination in exchange for better defensive sturdiness, Morris has gone ahead and accomplished the unbalancing and quality service by himself. Morris can create these opportunities individually thanks to his natural speed and his vastly improved left-footed service. (At this point, defenders who try to show Morris to his left foot when defending him down the left wing are making a grave, grave mistake.)
Conversely, Ruidiaz helps Morris by A.) finishing good service in the box and B). occupying the two center backs so that other players can get on the end of Morris’ crosses even when the striker can’t. Reason B is the No. 1 factor in the Sounders performing better when both players are on the pitch as opposed to just one.
The two players who have benefited most from Morris’ chance creation and Ruidiaz’s movement in the box are Cristian Roldan and Harry Shipp. Both of whom have scored twice on plays involving Morris in the build up and Ruidiaz occupying center backs to create space in the box. Without those four goals (each of which came in games the Sounders either won by a goal or tied), the team would have 39 points instead of 46 on the season and would likely sit in eighth, multiple points out of a playoff spot.
So you’re saying there’s a chance
By the numbers, the Sounders are a very good team when both Ruidiaz and Morris are in the lineup. Barring injury (**runs straight to the Cascades to knock on all the wood), both will be available for the playoffs (**goes back one more time in a cold sweat to cross-check international breaks with MLS playoff schedule).
Still, the Sounders haven’t put together a multi-goal victory since they beat up on MLS lightweights in the first three matches of the season. Though they are now a team fully capable of winning without dominating possession, the chances that they string four wins together against the best in the league while letting the other team run the game are extremely low.
As such, the key to the season still lies in balancing the team’s defensive ability and offensive fluidity, and the key to that lies in picking the correct good-but-not-perfect role players to put in the starting 11. As of now, Ruidiaz and Morris are probably two of only six or seven players whose names are in permanent marker in the proverbial team sheet. At least with those two in the lineup, the Sounders can compete with anyone.