National Writer: Charles Boehm

Sounders-RSL rivalry just got saltier with Albert Rusnak capture

“I want to win trophies. I want to play in front of the best fans. The biggest stage. The brightest lights. Simply, it had to be Seattle.”

Albert Rusnak’s move from Real Salt Lake to the Seattle Sounders isn’t automatically a zero-sum equation. Players play out their contracts and join new clubs all the time, around the world. In this case, there doesn’t have to be a winner or loser, or victim.

Rusnak wanted wages and terms that RSL – an organization in a profound, if exciting, state of transition with new ownership – couldn’t or wouldn’t provide. The Sounders stepped up to provide them. By joining an established title contender as he approaches the back half of his career, he and his new club fill mutual needs, while his old one enters a new era with decks cleared and room to maneuver. It might even turn out to be a win-win-win situation. No one has to take any of this too personally.

But then Seattle had to go all Cobra Kai and drop that hype video when officially announcing his acquisition yesterday, the one in which Rusnak made the aforementioned declaration:

Luring away a Western Conference competitor’s playmaker and only Designated Player with more money and a higher place in the table, much like you previously did with their general manager and head coach, then throwing subtweet-level shade in his introduction? Now THAT right there is some big-club behavior, the kind that can add an extra sprinkle of spite on the pitch – and give the underdog that much more satisfaction from beating them.

You know, like RSL when beat Seattle in their own house in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs this past November.

As egalitarian as MLS tends to be, there aren’t many clubs richer, more glamorous or more recognizable than the Sounders, perennial trophy hunters who think, act and spend accordingly. They play in front of some of the biggest crowds in the league and don’t mind lording it over their counterparts now and then.

Rusnak could well prove the final piece in their puzzle and it’s noteworthy that they felt comfortable allocating a DP slot to a proven MLS performer rather than attempting to make a splash with a bigger name recruited from overseas.

And there aren’t many clubs or fanbases who relish punching above their weight more than RSL, based in the league’s smallest market, reliant on academy production and in-house player development, challenged by a long-running sale process that imposed a state of limbo for the better part of two years.

As annoying as it may have been for them to watch Garth Lagerwey, Freddy Juarez and now Rusnak pull up stakes and leave the Wasatch Front for Puget Sound, Claret-and-Cobalt supporters know they can and do still compete. In fact, some of the RSL faithful were left wanting more from Rusnak over his five years in Utah, preferring the multi-tool versatility and heart-on-sleeve commitment of Damir Kreilach, who outscored Rusnak in three of the past four seasons.

This week, someone who’s worked in North American soccer for a long time pointed out to me this situation’s parallels to the Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund relationship. One of German soccer’s great rivalries is also an asymmetrical one, where the Bavarian giants have repeatedly flexed their wealth and cachet to snatch up Dortmund’s top performers for themselves, from Mario Gotze to Robert Lewandowski to Mats Hummels.

Whether you consider that predatory behavior or simple economic reality, it’s often hamstrung BVB’s best-laid plans, though it also makes it that much sweeter when they do outpace Bayern, like the delirious back-to-back Bundesliga titles they won under Jurgen Klopp a decade ago. In MLS’s parity-oriented structure, teams in RSL’s position usually have ample reason to believe they can pull off something similar.

Keeping last year’s Cinderella-style postseason run in context, Pablo Mastroeni’s squad doesn’t have the horses that Brian Schmetzer’s does, not yet at least. But they’re not that far off, and now they’ve got three open DP slots and new billionaire ownership that sounds forward-thinking and ready to spend. It’s two teams at two different places in the cycle, and even at that, nothing is a given when they meet, as David Ochoa & Co. showed us in November.

And the schedule gods have ensured that we won’t have to wait too long to take this narrative out for a spin: Seattle visit Utah in Week 2 this season, for RSL’s home opener on March 5.