In light of Seattle’s recent free agency move, we’re taking a brief pause in our 2021 wrap-up for an in-depth look at the newest Sounder. We’ll dive back in to the final six Sounders from 2021 soon enough, but couldn’t resist breaking down how Mr. Rusnák could factor in to 2022.
Albert Rusnák — Who is this guy?
Rusnák has been in MLS five years, somehow flying under the radar while putting up excellent stats that stack up with anyone in the league. Interestingly enough, RSL scored more goals than Seattle last year. A 27-year-old Slovakian international, Rusnák is a deft player who looks for central areas to combine with teammates and possesses a direct attacking focus that has resulted in him averaging about 2.5 key passes per game as part of a well rounded résumé. Every year in MLS, he has earned 15 to 20 G+A on a middling RSL team, and comes to a stacked Seattle squad looking capable of slotting directly into the starting lineup at a number of locations.
What I liked: Whereas Nico Lodeiro is a creator always looking to slip a teammate in and find a cross, Albert will create for others but is much more directly goal dangerous from the run of play. While not a pure string-puller, he can combine in space and put teammates through. He patiently waits for attacking opportunities to develop and almost always picks the right play. If you look through the highlights of Rusnák’s career, you see a pattern of where he likes to play, and spoiler: it fits a direct need for the Seattle Sounders. Specifically, he dominates between 15-30 yards out from goal, wider than the eighteen-yard box, and consistently looks for the ball in these spaces that Seattle has struggled to utilize for years. Like Portland with Diego Valeri and Sebastián Blanco, Rusnák excels at hitting shots from near the edge of the box. His direct shooting results in goals and/or deflections and puts incredible pressure on opposing defenses and goalkeepers. The Sounders need a player to take advantage of the movement on the width and Ruidíaz central, and Rusnák fills this void as well as anyone in the league. His ability to drift centrally, find the ball, and strike true from distance is fantastic.
Albert uses both feet cleanly, mainly using his right for touch passes and set piece delivery but smoothly switching to his left when a better option arises or to go direct on goal. A gifted corner taker, he will add another option for set pieces to an already deep corps. Rusnák has great power and accuracy from his aforementioned long shots with both feet, forcing corners and saves nearly every time he strikes, and he has a keen eye for unique angles and surprising finishes. Speaking of striking, he gets excellent contact on volleys, putting anything waist high and below on frame, powerfully, with either foot. The best part of his striking and scoring is it’s so natural. There are no extra shuffles of the feet or indecision as the ball is arriving — he instantly decides on how to strike and puts whatever foot/thigh/heel/body part through the ball and on frame without needing extra touches. This efficient striking manner often scores before the opposing keeper is aware the shot is coming.
It’s also important to point out where he doesn’t go — namely into the corners or too deep into the six-yard box in transition, preferring to lurk around the top of the box in a shape-wrenching tactic that is deadly due to his aforementioned proclivity to strike from distance with accuracy. This also fits neatly into the Sounders tactics as wide areas are almost always filled by the likes of Morris/Lodeiro, wide overlapping defenders, or diagonals from central defensive midfield. Albert isn’t going to limit Seattle’s wide play. In fact, his ability to push inside and combine technically, as well as post up in transition, will open up space for teammates to the width. Speaking of opening up space, his movement constantly forces defenses away from goal, and they repeatedly had to be aware of his positioning on top of the box. This creates giant spaces in between center backs and across the six-yard box for runners to slice through the opponent defense and finish off crosses and through balls. This space creation should have Raúl Ruidíaz drooling. Although Raúl is capable of stunners from long range, he is best with crafty movements and finishing from inside the box (3g inside the six in 2021, 8 inside the 18). Rusnák’s addition to the lineup buys Ruidíaz even more space to work, a deadly combination for the team.
What I didn’t like: The main detraction from Rusnák’s play may be his perceived intensity, a byproduct of which is his defensive work rate. This isn’t to say he doesn’t run; on the contrary, his ground covered and effort on the field is top notch and near the Lodeiros of the league. The difference is he makes runs and creates chances often without the ball, not demanding nearly as many touches as other high-level DPs. As a result, Albert is more of a finesse player who doesn’t factor much defensively, and isn’t going to be a hard-tackling or tracking-back defender. Rusnák attempted 186 duels in 2021. (For comparison, Will Bruin had 180 duels in 2021, in fewer than half the minutes.) This can be an issue for the Sounders whose ethos has been “defense-first” since their inception, and they’ll need to adjust for his proclivity to stay forward and not defend from the front. If he is asked to play a wide position for Seattle, he’ll need plenty of support to ensure that gaps don’t occur in between an aggressive attacking force and the rest of the team.
Another issue may be one of an abundance of wealth: trying to shoehorn Nico and Rusnák on the same field offers some challenges as their complementary styles have a fair amount of overlap. While it’s likely two world class players can co-exist, it probably means changing the formation back to some form of 4-2-3-1 that will require work from defensive midfielders and outside backs. He isn’t a presence in the air and is not a physically imposing player, adding to a rather small Sounders team. The cumulative effects of these are when dealing with a parked bus, Seattle will need to be more inventive. (What else is new?) It’s something that Rusnák himself should help alleviate, but worth keeping in mind as other teams will likely try to counter Seattle’s speed and precision with size and aggressiveness.
Moving forward: If the Sounders can get all their pieces together, they have the most talented roster in their history, completely assembled prior to starting play in 2022. Getting a player who is familiar with the league, country, and travel, who doesn’t have a transfer fee and is as talented as Rusnák is unprecedented and absolutely incredible. The administration, the coaches, the team, and the community should all be applauded for making this happen. Rusnák gives the Sounders more flexibility should they deal with injuries, and tactical help in dealing with the creation and scoring issues evident in the second half of 2021. Allowing Cristian Roldan to be a full-time defensive midfielder next to João Paulo should only increase his value to the team, as Cristian can still make the runs that were effective last year while forging a new partnership in defensive midfield. Guys like Ruidíaz and Morris should see success as another distributor arrives. Nico Lodeiro has an equally creative partner to link with. This new guy should make the entire team better, including their ridiculously deep bench, as players who might not be 90-minute stars can excel in substitute roles.
Expectations should be high for Albert Rusnák personally, as well as how he can become a force multiplier for Seattle success. Based on my viewing of this player, he should fit in near-seamlessly, able to combine with teammates and create for himself while possessing leadership that Seattle has always coveted and skill that is obvious. He has raw talent and proven success in MLS, and he’ll stand out with individual brilliance or complement others. Surrounding him with Seattle’s other quality players will only increase his value, and conversely, he should raise the ceiling for expectation of the entire team.