SEATTLE — Over the course of their illustrious and decorated MLS history, the Seattle Sounders have at times played some glorious soccer. But when they’ve been at their best, it’s just as often a more pragmatic approach that can sometimes crowd out the more expansive ideals they sometimes strive for.
That’s been especially true in some of their biggest games. Think back to the 2019 MLS Cup final, for instance. The goal there was to win, no matter what. They did. Mission accomplished. But even the biggest fans would admit that there was a lot of “taking what the opponent gives you” going on in that one.
What’s so exciting about this current team is that even in these big games, there’s an almost infectious joy that comes from watching them.
And in their biggest game yet — a Concacaf Champions League semifinal against the reigning MLS Cup champions — the Sounders were at possibly their most expansive and fun.
It wasn’t just the 3-1 scoreline or how they seemed to be in control, even after they gave up the first-half equalizer. It wasn’t just the sheer number of chances. It wasn’t just the sometimes suffocating nature of their press. It was all of that, plus something a little harder to quantify. The Sounders just looked good doing it all.
“My overall impression, right now, was that was an entertaining soccer game,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said in the postgame press conference. “I hope our fans enjoyed that. I did. I enjoyed that. I hope the TV audience that tuned in enjoyed that. I thought it was a good game.”
While the numbers don’t tell the whole story, they do help. The Sounders generated 2.86 expected goals, completed 479 passes (86%) and fired off 10 shots from inside the penalty area. NYCFC is a team that thrived in possession last year and were capable of passing through almost anyone’s press, but found themselves often struggling to get out of their own end against the Sounders.
Individually, there were plenty of standouts. Jordan Morris looked borderline unplayable throughout the first half while setting up one goal, scoring another and generally giving NYCFC defenders fits whenever he touched the ball. Cristian and Alex Roldan were a holy terror on the right side, cleverly setting one another up for chances deep in the NYCFC end. The midfield trio of João Paulo, Albert Rusnák and Nicolas Lodeiro that looked so good on the weekend against Minnesota United was even better in this one, creating overloads and advantages all over the field.
“I think there wasn’t a player that didn’t have a great performance,” said Rusnák, who finished off one of the best team goals in recent Sounders memory. The goal featured 13 passes with 10 players getting at least one touch. “That’s what it takes in these kinds of games.”
Rusnák’s play felt particularly notable, especially coming on the heels of what I felt was a breakout performance a few days earlier on the road against Minnesota. The thinking when Rusnák joined the Sounders was that he’d play mostly as a wide midfielder and deputize as a No. 10. After all, those were his primary roles at Real Salt Lake and a big reason why the Sounders seemed to want him.
But Schmetzer had shown a willingness to deploy Rusnák a bit deeper for much of this year, banking on his ability to cover ground and connect passes as opposed to simply operating in and around the penalty area.
Playing alongside João Paulo and behind Lodeiro, it seems as though the Sounders have unlocked some new abilities in Rusnák. Against NYCFC, he completed 65 of 68 passes, was 5-for-5 on long balls, made 10 recoveries and even won 3 of 4 duels.
“Albert’s a smart soccer player,” said Schmetzer, while crediting assistant coach Freddy Juarez for vouching for Rusnák’s possibly overlooked skills. “Based on what he did on the goal, based on some of the reads he takes, based on some of the tenacity that Freddy talked to me about that he saw when he was coaching him at RSL ...
“I would probably take offense if someone said Albert can only play as a 10 or as a winger who can tuck inside, he’s got more than that.”
Even better, this might just be scratching the surface. This was the first game all year that the Sounders had played with this front six and logic suggests they’ll get better as they improve their understanding with one another. Notably, the Sounders have outscored their CCL opponents 12-2 without getting a single goal from Raul Ruidíaz.
“You’re just starting to see the tip of the iceberg there when guys are back to full health,” Schmetzer said. “To have everybody now in place, I think you’re going to see a little bit of how this team is going to kind of build into what they are. I think we have a lot of talented players.”
As exciting as this all was, the Sounders were quick to pump the brakes on getting too far ahead of themselves. The chatter has already started that they present the best opportunity yet for MLS to finally win this elusive title and there’s apparently even some chatter in Mexico that it’s Seattle’s tournament to lose.
Schmetzer was having none of that, especially with a massive return leg next week. For NYCFC to overcome this deficit, they’d only need to win 2-0.
“What I told them in the locker room is it’s not finished yet, it’s not over against New York City FC,” Schmetzer said. “We have to still earn every opportunity we have to even get to a final, and Pumas and Cruz Azul are good teams. Then we talk about the next phase. Right now we’re focused on one more game against New York City FC.”