National Writer: Charles Boehm

Albert Rusnak could make 2022 Sounders among "best teams we've had here"

Even with masks protecting every face on the podium, it was easy to make out grins as broad as the Puget Sound as Seattle Sounders FC officially welcomed Albert Rusnak to the Emerald City in a Friday afternoon press conference after their first training session of 2022.

Sounders GM and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey did not shy away from the hype, opening the event by expressing how “ecstatic” he feels about adding the Slovakian playmaker to a squad already a perennial MLS Cup contender that will also return to Concacaf Champions League this year.

“We feel really good about our group. We think that we're going to have a team that's going to be able to compete on all fronts,” said Lagerwey. “I think we're going to wind up with almost the entirety of the team from last year brought back on top of Albert being able to come and join us.

“I think that this is going to be one of the best teams we've had here. And hopefully we can go out on the field and we can show that, we can earn that. But that's why we brought Albert here, is to compete for championships. And it was a credit to him that he was willing to come and give us a try here in Seattle with the same idea in mind.”

It was an intro bullish enough for head coach Brian Schmetzer to crack a joke about the need to tamp down expectations on day one. But sporting director Craig Waibel acknowledged a reporter’s suggestion that the recruitment of Rusnak – a Designated Player at Real Salt Lake the past five years who will retain that status in Seattle – ranks as the splashiest free-agent signing since the mechanism was introduced to MLS in 2015.

“When the league issued the free agency list, about three seconds after that,” deadpanned Waibel when asked when the Sounders began targeting Rusnak. “You kind of browse the list, as we all do, and highlight the names that are interesting and it doesn't take long to highlight a player like Albert.”

Rusnak, who had plenty of other suitors around MLS and abroad, left little doubt he did plenty of homework of his own. He said he met with every member of the Sounders brain trust before signing on and has already scouted out places to live, school and care options for his children and other logistics so he can focus on soccer from the start.

But the visceral experience of playing in front of large, loud crowds at Lumen Field with RSL over the past five years, combined with the talented roster and organizational nous that has taken the Rave Green to four MLS Cup finals since 2016, were pivotal elements in his choice.

“The key factor for me was the winning mentality of the whole organization. It starts at the top and ends with all the players,” he said. “That privilege, the pressure of winning basically every competition that we enter, I know it's a hard thing to do, but on the other side, us as players, we want to win everything, even if it's a small-sided game in training. Everybody wants to win and I feel like this group already has that mentality.”

Lagerwey, who like Waibel and Sounders assistant coach Freddy Juarez worked at RSL before decamping for Seattle, is known for doing most of the club’s highest-profile transfer business during the summer international window. On this occasion, he was more than happy to shop closer to home and land Rusnak before CCL kicks off next month.

“The summer’s a bigger marketplace, so oftentimes you can find better values in the summer, that's what drives it,” he explained. “But if you're playing in Champions League, then you're going to look at this and say hey, if you can get a value in the winter, then that's preferable to that value in the summer. And so we believe that we got that with midfielder [Joao Paulo in 2020], we believe that we got it again with Albert Rusnak, and hopefully it puts our team in the best position to succeed both in Champions League and to hopefully win another MLS Cup.”