The Seattle Sounders once again head into the post season as one of the teams to beat.
Having appeared in four of the last five MLS Cup finals – winning two of them – the Sounders have become the super club in a league of parity. With their quality and experience, few would be surprised to see them go all the way again.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Seattle Sounders ahead of the post season – from tactics to key players, and their chances of winning the big prize.
For a short while, some Sounders fans were dreaming of an invincible regular season after their side went the first 13 games unbeaten (eight wins, five draws). The Rave Green were a little more inconsistent from mid-July on and even ended the season on a six-game winless streak, effectively blowing first place in the West. Perhaps the mid-season departure of assistant coach Gonzalo Pineda to Atlanta United hurt a little more than first expected…
Still, none of that matters now. Seattle have been in worse shape and less fancied before, and yet they still always make an impact in the Playoffs. If anything, they’ll probably feel lucky to get their bad form and mistakes out of the system before the post season. And even if they don’t, the Sounders already have the Leagues Cup trophy to show for their efforts this season.
He may look unassuming but don’t be fooled, Brian Schmetzer is one of the most accomplished coaches in MLS – even without Pineda at his side. The 59-year-old has shown incredible tactical flexibility over the years, switching his side’s shape and line-up to negate the opposition in a wonderful display of true pragmatism.
This season, Schmetzer has mostly stuck to close variants of a 3-4-3 system. Raul Ruidiaz runs point, backed up by the creativity of Nico Lodeiro, while Fredy Montero often plays just underneath where he can combine with the Peruvian. Aggressive full-backs provide width and thrust, while Joao Paulo and Josh Atencio progress the ball well and shut down opposition breaks in equal measure.
Of course, all this could change as we enter the Playoffs – Schmetzer has set his team to soak up pressure and hit the opponent in transition plenty of times before in the post season. The return of Jordan Morris from an ACL injury makes that an even more realistic possibility.
Raul Ruidiaz: There are few strikers in MLS right now that can match Raul Ruidiaz. The Peruvian has scored 61 goals in 94 appearances across all competitions since joining the Sounders in mid-2018, with 19 of them coming this season alone. Ruidiaz is very powerful despite his diminutive size, exploding out of the blocks and bullying much bigger defenders than him. The 31-year-old is also smart with his movement and, aside from being a poacher, capable of scoring spectacular goals from distance. Ruidiaz is the first of many problems Seattle’s opponents must solve.
Joao Paulo: He won’t win the award, but Joao Paulo at least deserves a mention in the MVP conversation this season. The Brazilian is often thought of as a No.6 and, yes, he is excellent and screening the defense. But Joao Paulo is so much more than that. A supreme ball carrier, precision passer, and scorer of stunning goals, there really isn’t much he can’t do. Schmetzer will sleep safe in the knowledge that his engine room is well-fuelled.
Nicolas Lodeiro: Almost every team in MLS has a playmaker extraordinaire and for the Sounders, it’s Nico Lodeiro. And as MLS No.10s go, he’s right up there among the best. The Uruguayan has 44 goals and 48 assists to his name in 156 Sounders games to date and is capable of playing physics-defying passes and shots that break the sound barrier. Lodeiro has struggled with knee problems throughout 2021 and even required surgery in September. He got some valuable minutes under his belt at the start of November and even if he’s only 50 percent fit, Lodeiro will have his moment in the Playoffs.
Hosting Real Salt Lake at home should be simple enough for the Sounders. RSL are entertaining, but terribly open at the back and feel like ideal prey for Ruidiaz.
But after that, they’ll likely face a Sporting Kansas City side that are far closer to their level, and one that’s already won twice at Lumen Field this season.
You can never, ever write off the Sounders in the Playoffs. But with Morris and Lodeiro still patched up, you wonder if they have enough difference-makers to make it past the Western Conference semi-finals.
Prediction: Western Conference semi-finals