International breaks are always a double-edged sword. During the long slog of the MLS season, two weeks off can seem like a godsend, particularly for the Seattle Sounders who have already played two-thirds of a season worth of matches. The extended break certainly provided the Sounders with the chance to get a mental and physical refresher and work on tactics, but as they say, there’s no substitute for playing games.
And the Sounders have plenty of them left, Major League Soccer having moved a number of matches to accommodate their successful Champions League campaign. The first of those matches came Tuesday evening at Lumen Field, in the Sounders’ first Cascadia Cup match of the season against the Vancouver Whitecaps. And while the Sounders slow MLS start has left them below the playoff line, three wins in four matches afforded them the opportunity to breach the red line, and set themselves up for a key home stretch which could elevate them to more plush MLS surroundings.
But the other edge of the international blade always threatens, and the Sounders’ vaunted depth was sure to be tested with five internationals unavailable due to national team duty.
Midway through the first half of the Sounders’ 4-0 thumping of the Whitecaps, it looked like they would be none the worse for rest, shooting out to a 2-0 lead and looking every bit the part of the MLS contender everyone expected them to be. And in the end, the shutout and margin of victory were deserved, but there are always moments in a game when things can take a turn. The Sounders were able to weather those moments, and their superior depth and talent over the course of the match was there for all to see as their Cascadia Cup defense begins.
Rust versus rest is the other eternal debate about the benefits of the international debate. And like most other teams, the Sounders have on occasion fallen victim to a slow start coming off extended rest. That wasn’t a problem here, as the Sounders shot out of the gates and were rewarded early with a 4th minute penalty that was expertly dispatched — as usual — by Nico Lodeiro. When Raúl Ruidíaz added the second in the 27th minute off a well-worked sequence, the Sounders were flying and it looked like it was a game where everyone would get in on the scoring action.
If there is anything that encapsulates the difference between the Sounders and the Vancouver, it might be the 10 minutes before halftime when, to be fair, the Whitecaps had the Sounders on the back foot. The Sounders couldn’t get out of their own way, and the Whitecaps were able to create something of a frantic pace that unsettled the home side and had them on the verge of breaking. But whether it was some timely last-ditch defending or some wayward shooting, the Whitecaps weren’t able to capitalize, and with the halftime whistle, their momentum was stalled. When Ruidíaz added the Sounders’ third on a peach of a cross from Léo Chú, the conclusion was written.
The Sounders’ collective fanbase surely took a deep breath when Ruidíaz went down just before being substituted, as it goes without saying that losing the most lethal attacker for an extended period of time would put a damper on the Sounders’ summer plans. Not that any fans need reminding about Ruidíaz’s importance to the team, but his two-goal performance was about as complete as one could expect coming off the break. Ruidíaz had a hand as well in the opening goal, creating the turnover and pass that led to the penalty. After the match, Schmetzer said Ruidíaz was pulled as a precaution but gave no clear indication on if the striker would miss any time. But Ruidíaz now has seven goals in his past six matches. Suffice it to say, now would be a bad time to go down.
The chatter has grown in recent weeks about whether the clock is ticking for Léo Chú in his brief tenure with the Sounders. Stuck behind entrenched starters when everyone is healthy, Chú has yet to really have his star turn when given the opportunity. While it seems premature to write off Chú after less than a year, time waits for no one, particularly in sports. Given the chance to start against the Whitecaps, Chú was by and large effective, if not spectacular. But his star brightened significantly with his contribution on the third Sounders goal which effectively killed off any chance of a comeback by the Whitecaps. Chú may find significant playing time hard to come by still, but at minimum, he gave the coaching staff something to think about.
There will be more ups and downs this year, and the playoffs are far from assured, but the Sounders moved above the playoff line for the first time in 2022. It’s more symbolic than significant, but it means something nonetheless. With four wins in five games, the focus is now more playoff-positioning than playoff lives, certainly where the Sounders expected to be when the season began. As important, the Sounders have turned around their home form — they’re 8-2-0 at Lumen Field in all competitions this year — a source of considerable frustration through most of last year and as this season began. The weather may remain unseasonably cool, but the Sounders are heating up.