TUKWILA, Wash. – One of the consistent elements of the Seattle Sounders’ lineup during their eight-game unbeaten streak is near constant change. Among the outfield players, only Jackson Ragen, Alex Roldan and João Paulo have started all eight matches and the Sounders have not used the exact same lineup in any of those matches.
The rotation has been particularly apparent in the central midfield, where Designated Players Nicolás Lodeiro and Albert Rusnák have alternated starts for the last seven games.
As successful as that has been, head coach Brian Schmetzer indicated his intention is to have a more stable group once the MLS Cup Playoffs start.
“At some point the starting rotation will have to be set,” he said following Tuesday’s training session. “I was just trying to figure out different lineups. There were injuries, three-game weeks. It’s been OK.
“Both are good pros, both want to win. We’ll probably have to settle on one or the other.”
Although Lodeiro and Rusnák have started together 25 times this season, it has not happened in any of the past seven games. The Sounders have gone 3-0-4 in those matches. While fixture congestion and availability have surely been a factor, a bigger issue seems to be the emergence of Josh Atencio and Obed Vargas as the preferred partner of João Paulo as well as Cristian Roldan’s return from injury. The coaching staff has apparently decided that Lodeiro and Rusnak are both best utilized as the most attack-minded of the central midfielders. Put another way, they seem to be competing for one spot.
“They’re team guys,” Schmetzer said. “They can be upset with me. I totally understand. But they are firmly committed to their teammates, there’s no issues there.”
When asked how he felt about the job-sharing, Rusnák was diplomatic.
“We both want to play, put it that way,” he said. “There were games at the start of the season where we were both on the field, now one of us comes off the bench. That’s the versatility we have. It’s really up to the coach. It’s what’s best for the team.”
Decision Day stakes
The Sounders have historically performed well on Decision Day, having lost just twice in the previous 14 seasons and going 5-0-2 during Schmetzer’s tenure. As is usually the case, Saturday’s regular-season finale has real stakes. The Sounders can finish as high as second in the Western Conference if they beat St. Louis City or can fall as low as sixth if they lose. In a sense, it’s almost a playoff game.
“We probably said that about Galaxy and Vancouver, too,” Schmetzer said. “There were snippets of that message going out already.”
More than the result itself, Schmetzer just wants to make sure his players are rounding into form.
“Just in the sense that we have to get our act together, when we’re playing up to our potential I believe we can beat anybody.”
Are three-game series ... good?
When the playoffs start, there will be a new wrinkle from recent editions: A best-of-3 series in the first round. The tournament then reverts to single-elimination for the Conference semifinals onward.
"I honestly like it," Rusnák said. "I wish it was three games all the way to the final. I don’t know how you’d do it with so many games in the regular season, but I think we’d all rather play than train, anyway."