TUKWILA — This week’s injury report was a case of good news-bad news. On the positive side, João Paulo has been able to fully participate in training most of the week and is expected to start Saturday’s game against the Portland Timbers. It also looks like Albert Rusnák will at least be able to suit up despite missing a couple days of training after getting a cortisone shot on Friday that should make the pain in his right heel manageable.
On the other side of that equation is the revelation that Josh Atencio was effectively declared out by Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer. Atencio suffered an adductor strain during Tuesday’s training session and has not been able to train all week.
“It sucks, it’s terrible,” Schmetzer said about Atencio. “He was playing really well, was getting some confidence. We’re gutted for the kid.”
Atencio is coming off arguably his best performance of his career. In addition to doing a lot of the normally reliable defensive work he’s known for, Atencio was also able to help break pressure with both his passing and dribbling. The cherry on top of the performance was scoring the game-winner on a 25-yard strike that was named MLS Goal of the Matchday. It was Atencio’s first MLS goal and his first goal at any level since 2019 when he was playing for the Tacoma Defiance in the USL Championship.
“It’s hard discussion because he was playing well,” Schmetzer said. “You offer words of encouragement. You get everyone to help them. That helps a little bit but it’s still a blow to a young player.”
Schmetzer said he was hopeful that Atencio could return to training as soon as next week.
Schmetzer indicated Atencio was likely to start if he had been healthy, but there are good options behind him. The most tempting solution would be to start Rusnák even though he’s been somewhat limited in training this week. Assuming Rusnák is pain free, he and João Paulo have enough of a rapport that he should be able to slide in somewhat easily.
Another option would be to give Obed Vargas his first start of the season. The 17-year-old has come off the bench in each of the past two games and has played 51 minutes so far this year.
That comes with some risk, though, as he hasn’t started a competitive match at any level since injuring his back last June. Vargas has played in some big games in his young career, but he’s not yet played against the Timbers and this could be a challenging environment for a player who’s still regaining fitness.
Other lineup questions
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Sounders lineup will be at forward. Raúl Ruidíaz now seems to have regained his fitness, scored his first goal of the season last week and is always up for matches against the Timbers, scoring 10 times in nine career appearances.
But that would likely mean moving Jordan Morris back to the wing and sending Léo Chú to the bench.
Chú is tied for the MLS lead with five assists, while Morris is the Golden Boot leader with eight goals, five of which have come while he’s been playing as a forward. Morris insists that Ruidíaz has actually been helping him with the nuances of the position.
“He’s been great,” Morris said about his relationship with Ruidíaz. “He’s an incredible 9. He’s been super supportive. At halftime [against St. Louis City], he was talking to me about things I could do. Then he comes on the field and scores. He’s a team-first guy and wants the team to do well. He’s been really good.”
In stark contrast to Ruidíaz, however, Morris has just one goal in 14 career appearances against the Timbers. Morris has at least two goals against every other team he’s faced at least 10 times.
Part of what might keep Ruidíaz on the bench is Schmetzer’s belief that Morris and Chú are a particularly dangerous pairing on the road, where the Sounders are less likely to dominate possession.