From the moment of Albert Rusnák’s signing this offseason, expectations surrounding the Seattle Sounders have reached rather impressive heights. The belief that the Sounders will compete for titles is, of course, nothing new. But adding Rusnák to a roster that already included several Best XI players made the possibility of winning multiple trophies feel as real as it ever has.
Through the first six weeks of the season, injuries have conspired to keep those players from seeing extensive time together. The result has been play that has fluctuated between frustrating and promising, but rarely the kind of “completeness” that one might expect given the roster’s on-paper strength.
Saturday’s 2-1 road win over Minnesota United came as close to fulfilling that promise as any performance we’ve seen this year, at least for the first 80 or so minutes. This was not the free-flowing, counter-attacking play we saw against Club León, this was something more impressive in its own right. During that stretch of play, the Sounders were pinging the ball around the midfield, dominating possession, creating scoring chances and generally looking like one of the league’s best teams, all while playing on the road against an opponent many expect to be among the best in the Western Conference.
“It is a good way to build into Wednesday,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said in his postgame press conference. “They’re finding some momentum.”
Almost as satisfying as the play itself was both the timing and who was involved. As Schmetzer alluded to, the Sounders have one of their biggest matches in franchise history on Wednesday when they host New York City FC in the first leg of their Concacaf Champions League semifinal. By the look of things, the Sounders should be as healthy as they’ve been all year for that game, at least among the front six that had everyone so excited at the start of the year.
Although they were never actually all on the field together, this marked the first time since the start of the regular season that Nicolás Lodeiro, Raúl Ruidíaz and Rusnák played in the same game. One of the big questions the Sounders haven’t really had much opportunity to answer is how they all fit together. This game provided a promising answer.
The Sounders looked especially dangerous in the first half when Lodeiro was deployed as a No. 10, with Rusnák sitting deeper with João Paulo in a double-pivot. Rusnák has twice before started alongside João Paulo, but never with Lodeiro in front of them.
Even if it was just for the first 45 minutes, Lodeiro looked as close to his pre-injury self as he has looked at any point in the past two seasons. His 46 touches were by far the most he’s had on a per-minute basis in any match in which he’s played at least a half since 2020 and his .5 Expected Assists were his best mark in that time as well.
Rusnák was not as directly involved in the attack, but may have found a role that suits him. Rusnák’s 80 touches were more than three times as many as he had in the Sounders’ last match and 25 more than in any previous match this year. That included 61 of 71 passing, with a team-leading six of those passes into the attacking third.
The final bit of midfield domination was provided by Cristian Roldan. Ostensibly deployed as a right-winger in a 4-2-3-1, Roldan was able to drop into the central midfield and give the Sounders the kind of numerical advantage coaches dream of. Combined, those four midfielders were able to swap spaces, cover for one another and create varying angles from which to attack.
“We were triangulating really well,” João Paulo said. “We were managing to draw them from side to side.”
That was particularly obvious on the Sounders’ first goal. The play starts with Lodeiro and Roldan combining to create a turnover on the left side of the field. Roldan and Jordan Morris then work a little give-and-go to get the attack moving. Morris then hits it back to Lodeiro, who pushes it across the top of the penalty area where João Paulo is able to run onto it and hit a perfect strike.
Full sequence of Sounders’ first goal showed sone impressive defensive work. pic.twitter.com/taIqlfRn8d— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) April 4, 2022
There remains an open question as to how effective this kind of midfield can be, especially against teams that might be a bit more able to exploit the lack of a true defensive midfielder. But we’ve now at least seen some real-world evidence that the Sounders can play as good as they look on paper.
Although Schmetzer was talking specifically about the restrictions on Lodeiro and Ruidíaz going forward, he may as well have been talking about his dynamic midfield when he said “The reins are off.”
If this game was a sign of what’s to come, there’s good reason to be excited.