BLAINE, Minn. – Raul Ruidiaz looks somewhat distracted by all the festivities around him as the first day of activities unfolds ahead of Wednesday's MLS All-Star Game presented by Target (8:30 pm ET | ESPN, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada).
Do not be fooled.
The Seattle Sounders FC striker is more focused and resolute than ever. And it’s all centered around his team’s last 10 games of the regular season and defining whether they'll make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs or miss them for the first time since the club joined the league in 2009 (13 straight qualifications).
“We have to give our all and fight. Me, personally, I can’t let the year go just like that,” he said. “I need us to fight for what we envisioned, and that’s winning.”
Currently one spot below the playoff line in the Western Conference and having lost five of their last seven matches, Seattle are looking at a challenging stretch of games to keep their playoff hopes alive. For Ruidiaz, however, it should not be about just making the postseason.
“That doesn’t give me anything. I know Seattle have never missed the playoffs, but that doesn’t matter,” said the 31-year-old, Seattle's leading scorer for the past four seasons. “What matters is to always aim for the biggest prize, and that’s the title.”
It’s an expectation that comes with being a Sounder. After all, it’s a club built on successes both domestic and international. Back in May, the Rave Green became MLS's first Concacaf Champions League winner, a milestone that put Sounders lore on a whole new level. They also won MLS Cup titles in 2016 and 2019, the latter of which Ruidiaz scored in against Toronto FC.
Still, for Ruidiaz, winning that CCL title – and the mental and physical strains the regional tournament induces – can partially help explain the team’s negative run as of late.
“Sometimes it feels we are living off that a bit, like we haven’t turned the page yet,” he said. “It’s the first time a team from the United States wins it, so at times we seem too focused on that.”
That, and also the unfortunate run of injuries key players in the team have sustained since then, including midfielder Joao Paulo, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury, midfielder Obed Vargas, sidelined with an injured back, and Ruidiaz himself, who just came back from a nagging hamstring issue.
“I’m not at 100 percent, but I’m close,” said Ruidiaz, who was used as a substitute in Seattle’s last two games, a 1-0 win against FC Dallas and a heartbreaking 2-1 loss over the weekend at Atlanta United. He had missed most of June and July before then, which coincides with when the team started to lose consistency.
“I’m still a little afraid after going months without playing but I’m starting to get into my rhythm,” he said, adding that he’s had a tough time dealing with being sidelined for so long, something he had not experienced before in his career.
“I’ve had injuries, but always recovered quickly. This year in particular has been the worst one in that regard,” he admitted. “There were a lot of moments where I felt very sad and unmotivated. With my family’s help and their support, I was able to get back up. There’s no other way.”
Seeing the Sounders struggle and unable to help while sidelined also added extra pressure for the Peruvian international to return as quick as possible, which is how he explained a fleeting return to the field on July 9, when he played 81 minutes in a 3-0 loss against the Portland Timbers before suffering another setback.
“I’m a person that always wants to play and I always prepare for that. So, sometimes I make a mistake: once I feel good, I really want to play and go all in,” he explained. “I go 100 percent right away and it can’t be like that, so now I’m trying to go little by little so I can get my rhythm back. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Controlling the star striker’s minutes and getting him to an optimal physical condition will be crucial for the Sounders as they embark on a difficult stretch, including three crucial “six-point” Western Conference games against Real Salt Lake (Aug. 14), LA Galaxy (Aug. 19) and the Timbers (Aug. 26) after the ASG break.
“Now that I’m back, I have put the pressure on myself to do something about everything that has been happening. We have 10 games to go, those 10 games need to go well,” he said. “We need to be conscious of the situation and we know we can turn things around. There’s a reason we are the Concacaf champions.”