Raul Ruidiaz has long demonstrated a propensity for the spectacular throughout his time in MLS, which has seen him establish himself as one of the league's most ruthless and efficient No. 9s. But the Peruvian standout might have pulled off his most head-spinning bit of magic yet in the Seattle Sounders' 1-0 victory over Austin FC at Q2 Stadium on Thursday.
With his team heavily shorthanded and locked in a 0-0 deadlock in the hostile confines of Q2, Ruidiaz scored one of the goals of the MLS season so far in the 67th minute, noticing that Austin goalkeeper Brad Stuver was off his line and unleashing a gorgeous bending strike over his head and into the net for what would stand as the game-winning tally. It was everything that makes Ruidiaz so lethal all wrapped into one highlight: The alertness and audaciousness to even attempt the shot to begin with, combined with the next-level technical ability to actually put it in the net.
After seeing it live and then watching the replay in the postgame locker room, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer told reporters that he was left in just as much wonder as everyone else at his star striker's latest exploits.
"That is an unbelievable goal," Schmetzer said. "Raul always knows where the goalkeeper is at all times, the ball drops for him and he hits it first time — I mean, that's Goal of the Year candidate for me, just because of who he is: A true goal-scorer. Not many people are going to take that chance or that risk of hitting that ball first time over the goalkeeper's head. Not many players are going to do that. But Raul Ruidiaz does. So, credit to him."
Ruidiaz didn't even start Thursday's match, entering as a second-half substitute as the Sounders fielded a youthful lineup, becoming the first team in MLS history to put five players aged 19 or younger in the same starting XI. It was a move born out of necessity, with Seattle decimated by a rash of injury and international absences amid a congested portion of their schedule.
With the young lineup doing its part to keep the match in a deadlock through the halftime break, Ruidiaz was put on in an unfamiliar role as a super-sub, needing little more than 10 minutes before finding the spectacular winning strike.
"I was fully supportive," Ruidiaz said through a translator. "This was a great opportunity for the young players to start and we are here to support them. They did a great job, they played all 100 percent during the whole game. They put all the effort to achieve what we needed to achieve and the victory is an outcome of the work they have done."
Seattle have long touted the abundance of young talent coming through their academy system, but Thursday's match was easily the biggest proof of concept yet that the work being done in the club's youth development system and USL Championship affiliate Tacoma Defiance is ready to pay dividends at the MLS level.
"It's a great moment for the whole team and the organization," said midfielder Danny Leyva, one of the teenagers who started the match. "I think it just shows that there's a pathway for the academy players going onto to the first team, so obviously it's a tremendous game with my teammates from the academy, especially this win away, I think it was a great performance from all of us. It's a huge win for all of us and very proud as an organization."
The lineup may have raised some eyebrows pregame, but Schmetzer said what he's seen from his young faces in training left him with full confidence that they would be able to do exactly what they did on Thursday: Give the team a chance, not just to pull one point, but get all three.
With some impressive shifts across the board from those young faces including Leyva, Josh Atencio, Reed Baker-Whiting, Ethan Dobbelaere and Obed Vargas, a Supporters' Shield-leading Seattle side look to have just become that much deeper — a potentially scary thought for the rest of the Western Conference.
"[The young players] earned the chance to start in a big contest, they work hard, they do all the things they do," Schmetzer said. "The coaching staff has done a great job to take some of these young players and give them instructions and help them through some of these big moments. But what I truly believe, what I truly feel right here [in my heart], is the fact that the culture of this club, the fact that we want to win every single game.
"The message to the group for the last day and a half is we didn't come down here to play a bunch of young kids, to make it a good story, to say, 'Ah, well we played five teenagers.' That was never our intention. Our intention and the winning culture of this club is I don't care who we put on the field."