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Running through the Gateway to the West

Sounders claim a 2-0 road win on Decision Day over St. Louis with goals from Rusnák and an own-goal caused by Baker-Whiting.

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6 min read
Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Sounders took on St. Louis City SC on the road to close out the 2023 regular season, and became the first team in the league to beat the MLS newcomers twice. The 2-0 Sounders victory, coupled with a 1-1 draw between the Vancouver Whitecaps and LAFC pushed Seattle into 2nd in the West when all was said and done, setting up a playoff meeting with FC Dallas in the first round.

St. Louis controlled the opening five minutes, but following a dangerous moment courtesy of Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris in the 5th minute Seattle started to put their stamp on the game. A few more chances came for both sides as the half wore on, but the Sounders were the ones to open the scoring when Albert Rusnák finished off a flowing piece of play that included Josh Atencio, Jordan Morris, and both Roldans. The sequence had shades of Seattle’s early season exploits as Alex Roldan picked his head up and found Cristian, who played the ball out to the wing for Atencio; Atencio hit a first-time pass to the feet of Morris who slid under pressure to keep the ball moving for Cristian to run onto, and he carried the ball into the box and cut it back for Rusnák to slot past Roman Bürki.

Holding a 1-0 lead, Stefan Frei was tested a few times and came up with a couple of saves to preserve the advantage, most notably a rifled shot from the top of the box from St. Louis midfielder Njabulo Blom after a failed clearance. Reed Baker-Whiting repaid Frei’s work in goal by creating an own-goal to double Seattle’s lead in the 38th minute. From his leftback position RBW picked up an errant pass by St. Louis in the midfield and carried the ball down the field, playing a give-and-go with Léo Chú to get into the box before attempting a cross that a diving Tim Parker deflected into his own goal, leaving St. Louis trailing 2-0 at home.

There was plenty of action – near chances for both sides, Atencio rugby tackled Aziel Jackson, Alex Roldan and João Klauss seemed like they might get into a real fight – but ultimately the 2-0 scoreline stood until the final whistle. There was one storm cloud over an otherwise sunny outing as Reed Baker-Whiting looked to be particularly upset as he came off after suffering a knock. It remains to be seen whether the pain on his face was the result of a serious injury or simply a young man experiencing some intense emotions as he came off the field in a big game, but we’re hoping for the latter over the former.

Key moments

3’ – Stefan Frei gathers a corner, but loses the ball on the way down and the rebound falls to João Klauss whose shot is over the bar.

5’ – Seattle’s first foray into the St. Louis end comes as Cristian Roldan picks up a loose ball and plays in Jordan Morris, but Morris is closed down in the box and draws a corner.

8’ – Cristian Roldan receives the ball out on the right and plays in a dangerous cross that Morris gets his head to, but he can’t get the shot down as it goes high.

23’ – GOAL! Albert Rusnák! Josh Atencio and the Roldans work the ball out of trouble down the right and Cristian Roldan plays a ball across the box for Rusnák to slot home! 1-0 Sounders

29’ – Njabulo Blom fires a shot from the top of the box after a poor clearance falls to him, and Frei parries it up into the air before catching the ball securely.

38’ – GOAL!! That’s two! Reed Baker-Whiting picks a pass off and carries it up the field, plays a one-two with Léo Chú and plays a ball across the ball that’s deflected into goal! 2-0 Sounders

47’ – A close chance early in the second half as Chú ends with the ball on the right side of the box, beats Bürki with his shot but has the ball cleared off the line by Parker.

49’ – A big save from Frei, who dives to his right to get both hands on a shot from Aziel Jackson and palm it away from goal.

55’ – Jackson goes close again, this time hitting the top of the crossbar on a shot that Frei seemed to have covered.

57’ – The Sounders spring a counter via Chú and Morris. Chú finds Morris in the box after winning a foot race with a pair of defenders, but Morris can’t get his shot off.

66’ – Cristian Roldan hits a rocket that slips off of Bürki’s hands, but the GK is able to collect calmly before it crosses the goal line.

82’ – Morris nearly adds a goal, getting around Tim Parker and getting a shot off from a tight angle, but his shot goes wide of goal.

85’ – Substitute Nico Lodeiro goes close with a free kick from the top of the box that’s headed for the corner, but Bürki’s able to tip it away for a corner.

90’ – Sam Adeniran has a crack from outside the area, but his low shot whizzes wide of Frei’s goal.

Quick thoughts

Strutting into the postseason: There was some concern that the Sounders might stumble into the playoffs, that the eight-game unbeaten run the team was riding was a bit flattering. They’d gone 3-0-5 during that run, and while St. Louis didn’t have anything to play for other than momentum after clinching first in the West they were still a team clearly capable of putting a hurt on teams as they proved on their way to that first place finish. That didn’t happen. It took a few minutes for Seattle to find their footing, but they handled St. Louis’ press well and exhibited some of the stylish play that was on display when these two teams first met earlier this season. Particularly on the opening goal, High Life Soccer was back. Even on the second goal, an own-goal created by Baker-Whiting capitalizing on a loose pass in midfield and punishing the error, the attack was flowing and the staples of the team’s best performances were there. There are no guarantees, but if this is how the team plays when the playoffs start they could do something truly special.

The cleanest sheets: Frei recorded his 14th clean sheet of the season with the shutout tonight. That’s good for the best mark in the league this season, and sets both a personal best and a club record for most in a season. Plenty of credit for this one and the 13 that preceded it goes to the backline and the team defense that Frei likes to talk about, but the Sounders GK earned his honors. Against St. Louis he wasn’t called on to make too tough many saves, but his five saves and command of the box ensured Seattle’s second-place finish and a big road win to go with the monumental shutout. Frei has showed over and over this season that he’s far from finished and that the team’s in good hands while he’s between the posts, and this record is further proof of that.

An ideal XI: It’s strange after all these years to look at a starting lineup for the Sounders that features Nico Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz both on the bench and think, “yeah, that’s a strong lineup,” but that’s where we are now. Morris started up top with Rusnák at the 10, and with Atencio alongside João Paulo in midfield it’s hard to deny that this is probably the group that gives Seattle the best chance to win a game from the start. Not for nothing, but Baker-Whiting also started this game ahead of Nouhu – although that’s less likely to be the case as the playoffs start – and he put in another strong performance outside of the own-goal he caused as he won two of three tackles, added six recoveries, and won five of eight ground duels. It’s a perfect time to settle on a starting group heading into the playoffs.

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One stat to tell the tale

43/45 – Jackson Ragen completed 43 of 45 attempted passes; his 43 completed passes was more than any other player, and more than all but three players even attempted.