Raul Ruidiaz

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MLS Cup: Five key questions on Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC

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Despite the emergence and rise of the Atlanta United’s and LAFC’s of the world, MLS is going to complete its first MLS Cup trilogy in front of a sold-out CenturyLink Field on Sunday, as the Seattle Sounders take on Toronto FC for the third time in four years.

Make no mistakes, however, the stakes remain high – perhaps higher than ever before – as both sides look to add a second star above their crest. With the financial and quality bar consistently being raised across the board, this may be the first and last MLS Cup trilogy for a pair of decades.

So, who will win it? Will Jozy Altidore even make the visitor’s 18? Pro Soccer Talk answers some of the most pressing questions ahead of the highly-anticipated final.

Will Jozy Altidore take the field for Toronto? 

Let it be clear: Even if Altidore was ready to go, Toronto are still in Yakima, Washington looking in. Now, without the striker in the equation entirely, things start going from bitter to sour instantaneously for the Reds.

Which begs the question: where does Altidore’s health stand less than 24 hours away from the final?

“I got on the field yesterday, it felt good going through the motions and set-ups,” Altidore told reporters on Saturday. “It felt good. Today is another day to push it more and try to make myself available. This is it, the last day before the game. See how it reacts, put it under a little more stress.”

And according to coach Greg Vanney, Toronto are preparing for an MLS Cup with the 30-year-old healthy and ready to go – not 100 percent, just healthy enough to see some minutes on the field.

“We were able to get him through training yesterday, he was okay coming out of it,” Vanney said. “This morning we did as much as we felt we could do. If he comes out of it okay tonight, we’ll see what kind of role — if any — he can play tomorrow. He’s battled through this injury, I’m still hopeful that tomorrow when he gets up and feels great. If there’s nothing really wrong with him, we’ll try and make use of him as much as possible. I’m encouraged with the steps he’s been able to take so far.”

So, it sounds like it won’t take a miracle after all for Altidore to feature in the biggest game of the season. Or maybe the miracle already occurred.

Now is there enough pixie dust on the striker for him to step up and make a difference like the one he did against Seattle on a blistering cold night in Toronto back in 2017?

Is CenturyLink Field’s atmosphere going to outshine last year’s venue?  

Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium was loud in last year’s final, and the record-breaking 73,019 spectators in attendance had everything to do with it.

On Sunday, the attendance won’t be up to par to last year’s, but if CenturyLink Field has been known for something over the past 17 years, it’s the decibels and seismic activity it can generate. 69,000 are expected for the final, with the strong majority boasting Sounders blue, rave green, and cascade shale.

The Sounders already put on a spectacle at home throughout the regular season. With anxiety, thrill and excitement that finals bring to them by association, expect a couple of tremors in Seattle, if the Sounders deliver in emphatic fashion.

Raul Ruidiaz or Alejandro Pozuelo: Who needs to step up more? 

With Toronto being the unapologetic underdog, instinctually, one would immediately turn and point at Pozuelo.

After all, the least one can ask for in that position is for your best player to live up to the billing in the most meaningful game of the season. Espcially with Altidore’s participation still in doubt, there are more reasons to pile the pressure on Pozuelo, who has scored two goals in Toronto’s playoff run.

After taking the league and Seattle by storm, doesn’t Ruidiaz have a world of business to finish, though?

“It would be very special,” Ruidiaz said of winning MLS Cup against Toronto. “It would be my second title overseas. I won a championship in Chile. I think when you arrive at a club you always have the desire to give the team the biggest joy, which is a star (above the crest) for the team.

“I’m a small step away from that and from achieving what we we all want, which is to give a moment of joy to a city and club that deserve it.”

Long story short, he does.

Like Pozuelo for Toronto, Ruidiaz is one of Seattle’s most lucrative investments ever. His impact on and off the field has been invaluable for a team that was desperately trying to fill the shoes of Clint Dempsey. He’s elevated teammates Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris. They’ve gotten everything from it besides the cup, the star above the crest.

Ultimately, it’s a world of choice. But keep in mind that one player is encouraged to be at his best, while the other is expected to deliver for a city ready to see its team lift the cup at home.

What will another MLS Cup mean for either team? 

Only five teams have two or more MLS Cups, but that will change by the time Allen Chapman blows the final whistle.

Another piece of silverware for Seattle would expand their total count to seven, while Toronto can add a ninth to their trophy case. There are no doubts that both teams are embodiment of historical success in their respective countries.

As the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., how do you pump the brakes on being MLS’ highest payroll spenders with a fresh, second star above the crest in a market that has showcased true, organic hunger for not only the sport in general, but for the Toronto FC?

You don’t, and it’s unlikely that Ali Curtis comes back to the office with a tighter financial proposal. If anything, a win would encourage higher investment all across the board and especially on the first-team, regardless if Michael Bradley’s $6.5 million option is triggered. After all, they can get creative, hence Pozuelo’s sitcom episode-esque arrival.

The same goes for the Sounders.

A second star would generate a soccer buzz unlike any other for the proper and great community of Seattle, while it would also invites majority owner Adrian Hanauer to keep the Sounders within the top six spenders of the league. With Xavier Arreaga likely to be demoted from his Designated Player role in the offseason, there will be room for the Sounders to make an additional splash.

In the end, as it is anywhere in the world of sports, titles bring bragging rights and an influx of cash. Seattle and Toronto will not be the exceptions.

When all is said and done, who will hoist the cup?

Arguably better on all sectors of the field, the 2019 MLS Cup is Seattle’s to lose, there are no ifs, ands or buts about it.

However, when the ball starts rolling on the artificial turf, determination and hunger will quickly weave out the side that holds lower levels of the aforementioned. With over 60,000 chanting to the tune of their crest and colors, it’s unlikely that Toronto will gain the cognitive advantage.

That said, the visitors are outweighed in both departments, and will need to lean on heroic moments like the ones showcased by Nicolas Benezet and Nick DeLeon against Atlanta United. An MLS Cup seems fitting for pure, sacred MLS soccer, no?

Sure, but there have been times in which MLS doesn’t MLS for the sake of just MLSing. The feeling in the air is that Sunday is one of those, which in practice, looks like a physical, choppy and segmented battle in which Seattle will come out on top.

Three things we learned from LAFC-Seattle (video)

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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.

[ VIDEO: Every touch from Christian Pulisic v. Burnley ]

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.

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Man of the match: Raul Ruidiaz

Goalscorers: Atuesta (17′), Ruidiaz (22′, 64′), Lodeiro (26′)

Three things we learned from Seattle-Real Salt Lake

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The game in 200 words (or less): Nick Rimando stood on his head in an outstanding 7-save performance that will be the last of his incredible career, as a fine near post header from Gustav Svensson and a late marker from Nicolas Lodeiro sent Seattle Sounders to the Western Conference Final with a 2-0 win in Washington on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Live scores, box scores, stats ]

Real Salt Lake had a strong first half, with attacking life sprung from Jefferson Savarino, but the hosts had more dangerous chances and took control of the match in the second 45 through relentless Jordan Morris and visionary midfielder Lodeiro. Svensson scored off a set piece and Lodeiro deservedly joined the scoring at the end of a Man of the Match performance before RSL’s Everton Luiz was shown a straight red for an awful two-footed tackle.


Three things we learned

1. Playoffs make unlikely heroes — It was going to take something special for Seattle to beat Rimando, and Gustav Svensson got the better of Kyle Beckerman to turn Lodeiro’s near post corner kick past the wrong-footed keeper. Brian Schmetzer’s teams have never lost a home playoff game, and that record stands thanks to Svensson’s noggin. It was the Swede’s 14th goal in 367 career matches.

2. Morris, Lodeiro lead determined Sounders — Morris, the MLS Comeback Player of the Year, has a first-class engine with a motor to match, and his on-field wisdom and improvement on both wings has made him a terror in MLS. Combine that with the vision of Lodeiro and there was a feeling of inevitability once the match reached halftime with zeroes on the scoreboard.

Lodeiro’s goal to make it 2-0, off a fine set-up from Raul Ruidiaz, was a sweet finish and a deserved marker. Look out, Los Angeles.

3. Rimando’s final game finds him in fine feather– The “Wall of the Wasatch” made a pair of very good saves in the first 15 minutes, the second causing him serious shoulder discomfort. He was needed again at halftime as Raul Ruidiaz raced onto an inch-perfect Lodeiro cross in the 43rd minute. After Nedum Onuoha blocked a shot with his face early in the second half, Rimando saved his teammate an own goal moments later. He made a flying 61st minute save to keep it 0-0, and made another terrific stop in the 86th minute to deny Victor Rodriguez with his seventh save of the night.

Twenty-two times capped by the USMNT, he played over 500 times for Major League Soccer teams and was very good on his final bow. He spoke to FS1 on the field after the game:

“I enjoyed everything. I enjoyed my 20 years and being here with family, it’s not the way we wanted to go. It’s a tough thing to swallow. It’s hard to put in words. I gave so much to the sport. To see it go, I’m just grateful you know, for everything it’s given me. It’s tough to lose like this. We’ll see what happens next.”

Man of the Match: Lodeiro — The 60-times capped Uruguay was lively from Moment No. 1 and will give Seattle hope against any remaining opponent.


Sounders hold off Galaxy in seven-goal thriller (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less):  The seven-goal spectacle between the Seattle Sounders and the LA Galaxy was just as enthralling as the neck-and-neck playoff race both team’s are in. In fact, the game pretty much had it all: a brace, a goal from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and, of course, a late game-winning goal. Galaxy never had the lead, having to play from behind and tying it up in three different occasions. Ibrahimovic scored his 23rd of the season, while Uriel Antuna and Jørgen Skjelvik pitched in one each. The true difference maker featured on the home side, however. Cristian Roldan, registering only his second brace in his career, inspired the Sounders’ crucial victory that has them two points clear (46) of third-place San Jose Earthquakes (44) with six regular season games remaining. Nothing is set in stone yet, but at the very minimum, Seattle can feel like they’re one foot in the playoffs. The Galaxy, however, will play a lead role in this season’s Decision Day, if they continue their recent ways.

Three moments that mattered

45′ — Ruidiaz breaks deadlock — The Peruvian with some early foreshadowing of what was to come.

66′ — Zlatan uplifts Galaxy’s hopes — Ibrahimovic now has 23 goals in the same number of appearances this season.

89′ — Roldan earns Seattle three, precious points — With a playoff race as tight as the Western Conference’s, Roldan’s  two-goal performance couldn’t come at a better time.

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Man of the match: Cristian Roldan

Goalscorers: Ruidiaz (45′), Roldan (55′), Ibrahimovic (66′), Antuna (75′), Morris (77′), Skjelvik (81′), Roldan (89′)

Sounders overturn poor run, outlast rival Timbers in victory (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less):  After a 2-1 win against the Portland Timbers, the Cascadia Cup belongs to the Seattle Sounders, and so do three points. Having not won in the last four, the three points, although not hoisted like the cup following the game, are sweeter than any silverware. Seattle, with seven regular-season games left to play, need every point they can get to remain second behind a historic LAFC. Raul Ruidiaz, scoreless throughout the aforementioned run, proved to be the difference, with one goal and assist throughout the night. The Timbers, who hang on by a thread in the playoff race, fell back on Diego Valeri’s genius in the second half, but it wasn’t enough this time around. They remain in the seventh spot with 37 points.

Three moments that mattered

10′ — Cristian Roldan opens the scoreline — Awkward assist from Ruidiaz, simple tap-in from Roldan.

60′ — Ruidiaz makes it 2-0  — Chances are Ruidiaz will score inside the box on a first-time strike.

54′ — Valeri gives Portland life — We’ve seen him do better before, but Valeri likes to show up against the Sounders.

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Man of the match: Raul Ruidiaz

Goalscorers: Roldan (60′), Ruidiaz (47′), Valeri (54′)