This was supposed to be a relatively quiet offseason. That didn’t stop the Seattle Sounders from making one of their biggest winter signings in club history — and probably the most notable free-agent signing in league history.
A little less than two weeks after rumors first surfaced, free agent Albert Rusnák has signed with the Sounders, the team announced on Thursday. Rusnák will occupy a “full” Designated Player spot on the roster, meaning the team will not be able to add any additional U22 Initiative signings without opening one of the other two spots that are currently filled by Raúl Ruidíaz and Nicolás Lodeiro. He’s signed for the 2022-23 seasons with a team option for 2024.
“We are very excited to welcome such a quality player like Albert to Seattle,” Sounders General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey said in a team release. “At 27, he is in the prime of his career and already knows our league very well. We’re confident his addition puts our roster in a very good position to succeed in 2022.”
The Sounders did not go into this offseason needing to fill any glaring holes in the roster following last season's 60-point campaign, but Rusnák’s addition is still potentially massive. The 27-year-old has been one of the league’s most reliable goal-creators over the past five seasons, with 41 goals and 39 assists for an average of .60 goals+assists per 90 minutes. His underlying numbers are nearly as good, as he’s averaged .38 non-penalty goals+assists per 90 over the past four seasons.
Despite a slow start last season, he still managed 11 goals and 11 assists while starting all 34 regular-season games. Only eight players in MLS had more combined goals and assists than Rusnák last year.
He’s also a semi-regular with the Slovakia national team, where he has 30 caps and 20 starts with 7 goals and 4 assists at the international level. Slovakia was eliminated from World Cup qualifying in November after finishing third in their group, behind Croatia and Russia.
In addition to being highly productive, Rusnák is also versatile. He can play anywhere in the attacking band in a variety of formations and is a tireless worker, covering a comparable amount of ground as Nicolás Lodeiro, albeit with far fewer touches and defensive actions. Most of Rusnák’s appearances have come as a No. 10, but he does have more than 100 combined appearances on either wing. If Lodeiro is healthy, it’s easy to imagine the Sounders going back to a 4-2-3-1 with Rusnák likely starting on the right wing and Cristian Roldan dropping into the defensive midfield.
“Albert is a dynamic playmaker with a proven track record of success, both here and abroad,” Sounders FC Senior Vice President of Soccer Operations & Sporting Director Craig Waibel said in a team release. “After bringing him to MLS in 2017 and observing his play over the past five years in Utah, we’re confident that his leadership and consistency will be valuable assets to our team going forward.”
Historically, players like Rusnák simply haven’t been available for intra-league transfers like this, but a change to the Collective Bargaining Agreement went into effect this offseason that allows free agent DPs to switch teams without having to take a pay cut. Once it became clear that RSL and Rusnák didn’t quite see eye-to-eye on what a contract extension would look like, the Sounders were able to effectively jump to the head of the line of suitors, at least within MLS.
Not only is Sounders Sporting Director Craig Waibel the executive who first brought Rusnák to MLS back in 2017, but assistant coach Freddy Juarez also coached him during most of his RSL tenure. That familiarity, combined with Rusnák’s apparent desire to remain in MLS, made the Sounders a relatively obvious fit.
The question then became could the two sides make the numbers work?
Although all three of the Sounders’ 2021 DPs are expected to be back this year, they were able to make room for Rusnák by buying down João Paulo’s cap hit with Targeted Allocation Money. In each of the past two years, that was impossible due to a reported transfer fee of about $2.5 million which was spread out over the 2020 and 2021 seasons. That transfer fee no longer counts toward his salary charge, making João Paulo eligible to be bought down with TAM.
The Sounders had initially hoped to get Rusnák on a salary that would have also left him eligible to be bought down with TAM, but that would have required him to take a pay cut of about $700,000 from what he made last year. Rusnák proved willing to take a pay cut, just not one that big. Once it became clear that he had other offers overseas — most notably in Saudi Arabia — the Sounders’ only real options were letting him walk or raising their offer.
Ultimately, they decided that the opportunity cost of adding a “full” DP was worth gambling on someone like Rusnák, especially while their scouting apparatus is somewhat limited by Covid-19. Although they can still add TAM-level or “special discovery” signings, they now have fewer tools at their disposal to add additional talent. But Rusnák also puts them in the strongest possible position to make a run at Concacaf Champions League, the one trophy that has long eluded them.