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Five Things we liked as Sounders vaulted KC for first place

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Sounders got standout performances from several players.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Heartbreak can be tough to get over, but sometimes the best way to heal is to put yourself out there again. In that sense, it’s a good thing for the Seattle Sounders that Wednesday’s Leagues Cup final was followed up by another match Sunday afternoon, as it gave them an opportunity to get right back on the proverbial horse.

Before the game, fans could be forgiven for not seeing the bright side, as a trip to first-place Sporting Kansas City on short rest — where the Sounders hadn’t won since 2013 — isn’t exactly how one might want to rebound.

Still, the opportunity for a bit of road revenge surely provided some additional motivation for the Sounders, having dropped a 3-1 home result to SKC earlier this year. And with the chance to recapture first place in the Western Conference heading down the regular-season stretch there were all the markings of an entertaining match.

The match delivered on all fronts, as the Sounders combined some stout — and at times desperate — defending with some timely finishing to leave Kansas City with a 2-1 victory that seemed important for reasons other than returning to the top of the Western Conference. It cleansed the palate too.

Sounders embrace the challenge

The Sounders’ ethos is exemplified by what head coach Brian Schmetzer says is their fight for every point in every game they’re in. Three days after a disappointing result that was brought into stark relief looking at the matchday squad, which was just about as first-choice as could be mustered. A road match on short rest after a game when most of the starters played could be an excuse to let the foot off the gas, play the kids, and chalk up the inevitable loss to a learning experience. But as Cristian Roldan said after the match, that’s not the mentality of the team. In a game that could go some ways to determining playoff seeding, the Sounders provided a bit of a gut-check while delivering SKC a gut punch of their own.

The 3-5-2 returns

Once upon a time — way back in spring 2021 — the Sounders decided to work with a two-forward formation after years of employing a 4-2-3-1 system. The 3-5-2 was designed to allow the Sounders to optimize their talent at centerback, provide width through their wingbacks, and free up Raul Ruidiaz by using Will Bruin to help occupy opposing defenders. While the Sounders started out well, an injury to Bruin along with a general injury crisis led Schmetzer to abandon the formation. Even as Bruin got back to fitness, the Sounders opted to continue with Ruidíaz alone up top, but the offensive results weren’t particularly impressive.

Schmetzer has periodically mused that teams may have figured out the Sounders’ 3-4-2-1. The return to the 3-5-2 in this match reminded everyone that a two-forward set should at least be in the regular rotation. The Sounders were able to create dangerous chances throughout the game, with Bruin and Ruidíaz working together admirably. The second goal had both Ruidíaz and Bruin involved, with the latter heading home the game-winner in ... unusual fashion. Both Brad Smith and Alex Roldan were effective in this match as well, with Smith having his best offensive performance in some time, providing the assist on the opening goal.

Cristian Roldan continues resurgent play

Another international break is just around the corner, and not that it will be any surprise, but Cristian Roldan’s play will surely keep him in Gregg Berhlater’s plans. Following up his standout performance midweek against León, Roldan had another great match playing in an advanced position. This time deployed as a lone No. 10, he was able to have a bit of a free role, moving from side to side and attacking SKC from a deeper position, which he used to great effect on his goal. After not scoring in two months, Roldan now has goals in back-to-back games.

João Paulo is the backbone

What more can be said about João Paulo? The Sounders midfielder continues to be the backbone of the Sounders. Never was that more apparent than Sunday. João Paulo provided crucial defensive support when the Sounders were wavering, especially in the second half when SKC were threatening to score the equalizing goal. More than once, João Paulo broke up plays that likely would have led to dangerous chances, if not goals. The Brazilian may not get the credit he deserves nationally for his two-way play, but there might not be a player in MLS more influential on both sides of the ball.

Atencio strong alongside JP

Part of the reason that João Paulo and Cristian Roldan were so effective in this match was the strong performance of Josh Atencio. Paired with João Paulo in the defensive midfield, Atencio was especially strong with the ball at his feet, rarely getting dispossessed and launching several dangerous attacks with some smart passes. Schmetzer said after the match that he sometimes wants Atencio to rein it in going forward from his defensive position, but with his abilities to turn and advance the ball and attack, it’s not hard to understand why he wants to.