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Postgame Pontifications: Returning to action in style

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With the first team mostly assembled, the Sounders finally looked like defending MLS champs.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Six months after the start of the MLS season, we got our closest look yet at a full-strength Seattle Sounders roster.

Early on in Sunday’s match against the Portland Timbers, the results were largely mixed. The Sounders weren’t creating boatloads of chances, but they were at least limiting those of the Timbers.

Whether that was by design or not, the results in the second half were much better. The chances came early and often for the Sounders before they finally broke through in the 72nd minute on the first of two Raúl Ruidíaz goals, and then they poured it on with two more after Will Bruin dramatically altered the match in the 81st minute.

It wasn’t the high-flying, relentless attack that we might have dreamed of when we all imagined João Paulo pulling strings as a deep-lying playmaker. But it at least delivered on the promise of a midfield that wouldn’t be easily overrun, a defense that could limit danger and an offense that could generate enough chances.

In short, we saw plenty to build on, especially considering this is a roster that is still effectively feeling out one another. For the first time all year, the Sounders looked a lot like the team that won MLS Cup back in December.

More broadly, it should also be encouraging that despite all these struggles, the Sounders lead MLS is Expected Goal-Difference.

The João effect

João Paulo got his first minutes with a full-strength midfield, putting in a solid if unspectacular 73-minute shift. It was perhaps by design that João Paulo did not look nearly as dynamic as he did when we last saw him.

Of course, in those first four appearances, João Paulo was mostly deployed as a No. 10. This time, he was playing alongside Gustav Svensson in a role he’s more likely to reprise throughout the season. It was probably predictable that he’d be pushed a little farther back and have less influence on the attack.

The positives were that the Sounders were never really exposed on the counter while maintaining 56% of possession. The Timbers are fine with giving up the possession battle, but their game plan is to lure opponents deep and then pounce on turnovers.

While the Sounders weren’t exactly sharp in the first half, they didn’t put themselves in many positions where the Timbers were able to run at them. João Paulo was a key part of why. The midfielder was tied for the team lead with eight first-half defensive actions, including four recoveries and two interceptions. He also avoided giving the ball away in bad spots, with just two incomplete passes in his own end.

Bruin changes the game

I’m far from the first person to observe that the game completely changed after Will Bruin entered the game in the 82nd minute. The Sounders scored two goals almost immediately after he came on and continued to create chances for the rest of the match.

What I hadn’t immediately realized was how intimately involved he was in all those chances. In fact, Bruin’s first five touches all set up scoring chances. A quick rundown:

Bruin gives the Sounders a type of threat they simply don’t have when he’s not on the field, a big body who can win headers and spring an attack off nothing.

It’s also notable that in Bruin’s first game back he had two shots and a goal in 19 minutes. That’s pretty efficient, to say the least.

Bruin’s play was good enough that it left head coach Brian Schmetzer openly wondering talking about the possibility of using some two-forward sets.

My suspicion is that will mostly be used as a late-game tactic as there’s not an obvious player Schmetzer is likely to replace in the starting lineup. But with six games in 19 days, there’s going to be some inevitable need for rotation. Based on how the Sounders have used Jordan Morris so far, he’s a likely candidate for some rest, perhaps as soon as Wednesday’s match against the LA Galaxy.

It would not be at all surprising to see Bruin lined up next to Ruídiaz with a diamond midfield of Lodeiro, Roldan, João Paulo and Svensson behind them.

Big-game Rui

If it seemed like Ruidíaz had been a bit of a scoring slump, there was good reason. In the first eight competitive matches the Sounders had played this year, Ruidíaz had scored just two goals. One of those was a penalty that he needed a second chance to convert and the other was a bit of a tap-in off a broken play.

It wasn’t like he was failing to get into dangerous positions. In those eight games, Ruidíaz had managed to squeeze off 35 shots. In the five matches that counted for the regular season, he was among the league-leaders in xG. Rather, he was just failing to convert his chances at the clip we were accustomed.

For the first 70-odd minutes, it was more of the same. To that point, Ruidíaz had three shots — all from inside the penalty area — with nothing to show for it.

Then the magic returned. Ruidíaz made a clever run to put himself between his defender and the ball, then made a seemingly impossible redirection of Joevin Jones’ low cross with the outside of his boot. He managed to create enough pace and precision to beat Steve Clark, who was perfectly positioned.

To seal the game, Ruidíaz added a second goal on a clever chip and then capped off his night with an unselfish assist to Kelvin Leerdam.

Suddenly, that slump seems long forgotten. Ruidíaz is tied for fourth in MLS with four goals and he’s leading the league with 4.6 xG, according to both American Soccer Analysis and FBRef.com.

That it was the Timbers who sparked his resurgence makes perfect sense. In six career matches against the Timbers, he’s now got seven goals and two assists. That puts him behind only Clint Dempsey (nine) for most all-time goals against the Timbers in the MLS era.