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Postgame Pontifications: MLS Cup hopes rely on being at full strength

But, damn, it was good to have Raúl Ruidíaz back.

Nick Carnera / Sounders FC Communications

The degree to which the Seattle Sounders have struggled without Raúl Ruidíaz in the lineup has probably been a bit overstated. In the five games the Peruvian forward has missed this year, the Sounders have gone 2-1-2, scored seven goals and averaged about 1.60 expected goals. Those aren’t numbers that will win any style contests, but they’d put the Sounders right around the middle of the league.

Of course, being in the middle of the league is not what the Sounders are about.

Good thing then that Ruidíaz wasted little time getting back to the form that made him a Golden Boot contender before being called away for international duty and then contracting Covid-19.

Despite having not played a match since Oct. 8 and having only trained a couple times with the Sounders since then, Ruidíaz looked every bit like his old self in scoring one goal and setting up Nicolás Lodeiro on the other in a 2-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Tuesday.

“He was happy to be back,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said in the postgame press conference. “I think he was just so thrilled to be back on the field with his teammates and it was evident in his performance. He and Nico didn’t miss a beat. It was good for his mental wellbeing.”

The two goals were vintage Ruidíaz. On the first, he timed his run perfectly to stay behind the ball before putting away Nouhou’s perfect feed. On the second, he took a long pass from Yeimar Gómez Andrade, worked his way around the defender, picked up his head, and picked out Lodeiro crashing on goal.

Rather than showing any rust from a long break, Ruidíaz looked well rested and never seemed to tire during his 90-minute performance.

“When we first heard about Raúl, we were all worried,” Lodeiro said about the Covid-19 diagnosis. “The first thing I did was call him and he said everything was under control. Seeing him play tonight, it seemed like he didn’t have coronavirus. He came with energy and was scoring goals.”

Ruidíaz now has 10 goals and four assists in 14 games this season, putting him within striking distance of Golden Boot leader Diego Rossi (13 goals and three assists in 17 appearances). As nice as it would be for the Sounders to be able to claim their first-ever Golden Boot winner, it’s becoming beyond obvious that Ruidíaz is a major part of what makes the Sounders legitimate MLS Cup contenders.

Ruidíaz’s movement, almost as much as his finishing or passing, help create so much more space for his teammates to operate in.

With Ruidíaz on the pitch, the Sounders go from middling MLS team to one that ranks among the best ever. The Sounders are 8-3-3, but more impressively score 2.21 goals and average 2.17 xG per game in Ruidíaz’s starts. If they were to maintain that pace over a 34-game season, they’d be looking at claiming 66 points and scoring 75 goals.

While most seem to think the power of the league is weighted to the East, a full-strength Sounders squad has played as well as any team this year under similar circumstances. The trick will be making sure that full-strength squad is actually available.

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