SEATTLE — What a strange sight it was on Saturday afternoon. The Seattle Sounders controlled a home match for 90 minutes. For long stretches they displayed something resembling swagger. Even a hint, now and then, of panache. The soccer at CenturyLink Field was legitimately entertaining.
At the end of the day, the hosts posted a 2-0 win over the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps. It was only the second time all season the Sounders built a two-goal lead. It was also their first shutout win of the 2018 campaign.
“I loved the soccer today,” said Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer. “I thought there were many, many moments of good possession that didn’t end up with a goal. And there were many, many moments of good transition where we were able to get quality attacks, especially when Victor [Rodriguez] was on the field.”
The only downside for the Sounders was another bite from an injury bug that just won’t stop biting. Rodriguez, a talented left-footed midfielder sporting a La Liga pedigree, left the match in first-half stoppage time with a right hamstring injury. He had only made nine appearances this season since returning from knee surgery, but was already beginning to look like one of the club’s most valuable players.
Still, the injury is a footnote to the main story: backs against the wall, the Sounders delivered a desperately needed result, and did it against a Cascadia rival.
Much work remains: the Sounders (5-9-5, 20 points) still trail Real Salt Lake by 10 points for the sixth and final playoff spot, and are still the 10th-place team in a 12-team conference. And to be fair, the Sounders were coming off a week of rest and home cooking, while the Whitecaps traveled across the continent for a midweek Canadian Championship match against the Montreal Impact.
The visitors were also without teen phenom Alphonso Davies, whom the club left in Vancouver as it reportedly negotiates a multimillion dollar sale to Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich.
But a win is a win is a win, and the Sounders are suddenly undefeated (2-0-2) in their last four matches, three of which were on the road. An away match on Wednesday against the dysfunctional and actively imploding San Jose Earthquakes means it isn’t unreasonable to believe the Sounders can quickly add another three points to their total. Hope glimmers faintly yet for a tenth straight trip to the MLS Cup playoffs.
As is so often the case, much of the credit goes to Nicolas Lodeiro.
Saturday was supposed to be about the debut of freshly inked Designated Player Raul Ruidiaz, the diminutive Peruvian international who led Liga MX with 40 goals over the last two campaigns.
To be sure, the 41,849 in attendance voiced their enthusiasm in no uncertain terms when Ruidiaz entered the match just past the hour-mark.
“I think everyone could hear how excited the fans were when he came on,” said right back Kelvin Leerdam. “It’s a new signing. Everybody needs to get adjusted to him on the pitch. We try to learn as much at training as we can about him. I know he likes to shoot a lot.”
While Ruidiaz was on the field for less than 30 minutes, his coach liked what he saw.
“He’s a talented player,” said Schmetzer. “He’s good on the ball. You guys saw his ability. His technical ability is very clean. His ability in certain moments to just play, connect passes, is stylistically like Liga MX. So that helped us in this particular game. He’s goal-dangerous. Some of his movement in the box — even though he didn’t get the ball — was good. So overall I’m very pleased with the way his debut started.”
But the day belonged to Lodeiro, who delivered a brace, could have easily picked up an assist, led his team in touches and shots, completed 90 percent of his team-leading 68 passes, and drew seven fouls. Given freedom to roam in Schmetzer’s attack, he left a trail of Uruguayan footprints all over the attacking half of the pitch, dancing around and passing past an ever more flummoxed Whitecaps defense.
He now has three goals and three assists in his last five appearances.
“He’s been good ever since he’s been here at this club,” said Schmetzer after the match. “I mean, yes there’s going to be the odd game. You can’t be perfect every game. But he’s always put his heart and soul into the games, that’s one of his greatest strengths. And today he was rewarded with two goals. But he does a lot of other things that might not end up on the scoresheet. He covers the most distance consistently in our group. Never gives up. Never quits. Those are all attributes that we’re happy to have here at the Sounders.”
Lodeiro is most always among the best Sounders on the pitch. But his game blossoms when the team is able to generate possession, to kick the ball around and develop some rhythm. It also helps when he finds himself surrounded by some of his more technically gifted teammates: it is no surprise that Lodeiro’s recent surge has coincided with the return to health of teammates like Rodriguez, Leerdam, and Osvaldo Alonso.
It’s a small sample size, but there was evidence on Saturday that the Lodeiro and Ruidiaz pairing could provide some desperately needed scoring punch.
Just seven minutes after Ruidiaz entered the match, Lodeiro released him behind the defense with a delicious through ball that traveled some 30 yards before catching the streaking forward in stride. Whitecaps goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic charged to snuff out Ruidiaz’s shot, but the glimpsed understanding should tantalize Sounders fans who have watched their team produce just 18 goals from 19 matches. (No other team in the league has scored fewer than 24 times.)
“How Ruidiaz fits in,” said Schmetzer after the match, “…is to be determined. And yes, I absolutely loved that soccer play. What I would say the common denominator is, is that Nico always has been a good guy about picking his head up and trying to play guys in. It’s almost like he needs to just balance that killer ball versus possession, which I thought the did a really good job of today.”