SEATTLE — Throughout the first leg of the Seattle Sounders’ Concacaf Champions League final against Pumas UNAM, Brian Schmetzer could be seen pointing to his head and yelling the Spanish phrase “cálmate.”
Basically, it means calm down. Put another way, it’s the opposite of a coach telling his players to go faster, suggesting that maybe putting their foot on the ball or taking a little longer on a throw-in wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
The Sounders, in Schmetzer’s view, have plenty of attacking talent. The goals will usually come. But they can sometimes get a bit ahead of themselves, leaving openings on the defensive side where they don’t need to; exposing themselves to counter-attacks when they’re pushing forward a little harder than necessary.
In the second half of Wednesday’s decisive match, Schmetzer could sense the match was starting to ebb in the wrong direction. The Sounders had a 1-0 lead — courtesy of a first-half goal by Raúl Ruidíaz — but had spent much of the first 35 minutes of the second half on their heels. The closest call came when Stefan Frei was forced to save a close-range header, but Pumas were repeatedly drawing fouls in dangerous areas and creating pressure. Playing in front of 68,741 fans is obviously great, but it also doesn’t lend itself to cálmate.
Normally, Schmetzer would do the soccer equivalent of calling a timeout by making a sub and use that time to share some messages. But after burning two of his three sub windows to replace injured players early in the game, he was left needing his players to figure it out on the field.
Luckily, Albert Rusnák is the kind of player who can figure it out. Collecting a loose ball in his defensive half, Rusnák dribbled forward, then cut back before finding Cristian Roldan with a simple square ball to his right. That little bit of movement, though, opened up space along the right wing and a few passes later, Ruidíaz had his second goal of the night and the Sounders were suddenly cruising.
They’d eventually add a third to punctuate their 5-2 aggregate-goal win, a fitting scoreline for not just the first MLS team to win CCL but to do it in dominant style. The Sounders finished the tournament with a 4-0-4 record and an 18-5 goal differential.
But it was that seemingly minor moment, when Rusnák simply took a little extra time to let a play develop, that brought an extra sparkle to Schmetzer’s eye in the postgame press conference.
“He had three guys around him, he was dribbling one way, stopped, turned and connected with Cristian,” Schmetzer said. “Albert’s composure in that moment was exactly what we needed.
“We were on the bench wondering what we could do. How are we going to get that little bit of composure that we need? Albert delivered in that moment. Credit to him for starting that sequence.”
Rusnák did not end up registering a goal or an assist in the match, but he did have important passes that helped set up all three goals — his slicing run into the box and cross to Xavier Arreaga was the key play on Ruidíaz’s first goal and his pass to Jordan Morris unlocked the defense on the third. Rusnák, who came to the Sounders after playing almost exclusively as an attacking player, also won three tackles, made nine recoveries and was 7-for-11 on duels.
Less quantifiable was the mental burden he needed to carry after reigning team MVP João Paulo went down with a knee injury in the 29th minute and was replaced by 16-year-old Obed Vargas. It was a lot to ask, especially for a player who’s still basically learning to be a defensive midfielder himself.
Rusnák was the Sounders’ most notable offseason acquisition, signed to a Designated Player contract under the auspice that he’d provide cover if Nicolás Lodeiro struggled to recover from injury or at least provide another attacking option from the wing. That’s how the season started, at least.
But after the Sounders scored just one goal in the first 135 minutes against Motagua in the first round of CCL, Rusnák and Cristian Roldan swapped roles. Roldan moved to the right wing while Rusnák slid into the defensive midfield. The Sounders scored four goals in the second half of that match and have mostly stuck with that arrangement ever since.
Playing farther back has surely cost Rusnák some goals and assists — he’s got just one of each — but the move has showcased parts of his game that were previously overlooked. He’s great in possession, covers a lot of ground and is at least positionally sound on defense, even if he’s not exactly Osvaldo Alonso in a tackle. Just as importantly, coaches and teammates have been singing his praises.
“I don’t know if he has, like, really small feet or something like that,” Sounders GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey said half-jokingly when recalling the play on the second goal. “He can just do stuff like that. It’s almost like a dance, like a little ballet, back and forth and pirouettes with the ball.”
The tradeoff for Rusnák is that he’s now competing for trophies. Prior to this year, Rusnák had only previously played in one cup final — the 2014-15 Dutch Cup — but didn’t seem overwhelmed at all by playing arguably his best match of the season in one of the Sounders’ most important games ever.
“He was amazing tonight,” Lagerwey said. “He was calm. That’s what we needed. When we went up 1-0 and they started creating chances, we needed to be calm, and we were calm. We got the ball, we got the counter, we scored a great goal, we won the game. It was Albert’s best game as a Sounder. If you show up and play your best game in a Champions League final, obviously good things are ahead.”
Perhaps the most remarkable — and potentially encouraging — thing to come out of the Sounders’ triumphant performance was how good they were after João Paulo went out. The Brazilian has been arguably the Sounders’ best player for most of the past two years, providing the kind of two-way play that coaches dream about and analysts drool over. It’s not hard to imagine almost any other MLS team hanging their heads — especially considering they had just lost their starting left back about 15 minutes earlier.
True to their “next man up” ethos, the Sounders just pressed forward. They maintained cálmate.
“After that second goal, it just kinda hit me,” Lagerwey said. “We’re really good. We’re really, really good.”