The game in 200 words (or less): The Seattle Sounders are headed back to MLS Cup for the third time in four years after knocking off the best regular-season team in MLS history, Los Angeles FC, Tuesday night in the Western Conference final. The Sounders went into Banc of California Stadium and shocked the world with a stellar team performance, most notably from their backline and center forward Raul Ruidiaz, who scored twice on the night. Midfield maestro Nicolas Lodeiro bagged Seattle’s other goal as the Sounders scored three unanswered after Eduard Atuesta opened the scoring in the 17th minute. Should Atlanta United advance past Toronto FC in Wednesday’s Eastern Conference final, Seattle will play for MLS Cup away from home for the third time during their stellar run.
Three things we learned
1. Time to recognize Ruidiaz among elites: Josef Martinez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (rightly) have each received plenty of plaudits for their prolific goal-scoring records as center forwards, but Ruidiaz should be mentioned in the same breath as some of the best to ever do it in MLS. He’s not even two seasons into his time in Seattle, but the Peruvian international has displayed a ruthless nose for goal while also contributing to the Sounders’ attack in ways the aforementioned no. 9s rarely do.
If you watch the below clip, you’ll see Joevin Jones picking up the assist and Lodeiro finishing with pinpoint precision, but what you won’t see is Ruidiaz’s turn out of trouble on the other side of midfield and his subsequent dribbling into the final third before laying the ball off to Jones. The Sounders defense was set up to absorb lots of pressure, but providing them these moments of respite, let alone getting the goal, were so important to Brian Schmetzer’s gameplan.
Then there’s the other part of his no. 9 duties — the lethal finishing touch — that makes him a potential game-winner every time he steps on the field.
2. LAFC start slow again. This time, they never recovered: LAFC needed a good 10 minutes to wake up before putting five past the LA Galaxy last week. Again on Tuesday, Bob Bradley‘s side started sluggishly and found itself on the back foot for the opening 15 minutes. Then, almost as if on cue, the Black and Gold sprang to life with Eduard Atuesta’s stunning free kick.
Only this time, unlike when they faced the Galaxy, LAFC’s period of control was short-lived. Seattle, a group that’s been through the rigors of the playoffs together, stuck to their low defensive block and soaked up the pressure in low-leverage areas of the field and got out on the counter-attack at every opportunity. It paid immediate dividends.
LAFC’s greatest strengths lie in their forward and midfield lines, which makes it hugely important to pick the right pass immediately after winning the ball back. Fortunately for Seattle, Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson are two of the smartest players in the league and they make the right decision nine times out of 10. This gives the likes of Ruidiaz, Lodeiro and Jordan Morris a few extra looks every game. Once you bypass the first wave of pressure from the LAFC midfield, their defense is highly suspect.
3. Rossi moved to the left too late: For 45 minutes, Diego Rossi — and Carlos Vela, to a large extent — were anonymous, inconsequential figures. Brad Smith customarily tore up and down the left side of Seattle’s attack, pinning Rossi deeper and deeper as the first half wore on. Bradley switched the Uruguayan to the other side of the field at halftime, and his impact was immediate.
The knock-on effect with Vela is obvious, as each of LAFC’s attacking stars operates best when linking directly or indirectly with one another. Whether playing on the right or through the middle, Rossi frees up Vela, either with their combined movement and passing or the attention he commands as a goal threat himself.
Schmetzer got his tactics spot-on, while Bradley whiffed with a thoroughly curious decision to deviate from something that worked to devastating effect for seven months.
Man of the match: Raul Ruidiaz
Goalscorers: Atuesta (17′), Ruidiaz (22′, 64′), Lodeiro (26′)