As they’ve done in each of the last three years, Seattle began 2018 miserably. The Sounders followed last year’s MLS Cup defeat by going 3-9-3 through their first 15 matches, putting them in last in the West and ahead of only D.C. United, who were then closing their brutal season-opening road trip, in the league standings on July 1.
But, as they’ve done in each of the last three years, they’ve charged up the table with a summer surge. Seattle have won their last five games and are unbeaten in their last eight, a stretch that dates to June 30. They’re now up to eighth in the West, one point behind seventh-place Vancouver and just three points behind sixth-place Real Salt Lake, who have played two more games than the Sounders.
Heading into Saturday’s home game against the fourth-place LA Galaxy, Seattle are only seven points behind Sporting Kansas City for the West’s No. 2 seed. That second spot, with its attendant first-round playoff bye, is Roldan’s target.
“If we can continue on this streak, there’s a chance that we can get third, we can get second. That’s unbelievable because of the hole that we were in,” he told MLSsoccer.com this week. “We’re not trying to push for a playoff spot – we’re trying to get that first-round bye and not have to deal with a play-in game. Now, we don’t want to be thinking too far ahead, but that’s the mindset and that’s the goal.”
There’s a long road in front of them, but the way things are trending, the second seed doesn’t seem completely farfetched. Ozzie Alonso and Kelvin Leerdam have returned from early injuries that contributed to Seattle’s slow start, Gustav Svensson and Roman Torres are back from World Cup duty and the club added a pair of starters in the summer transfer window in Designated Player striker Raul Ruidiaz and left back Brad Smith, who was acquired on loan from English Premier League club Bournemouth using Targeted Allocation Money.
Their newfound health and the new signings have paid major dividends for Seattle, particularly in the attack. The Sounders have been defensively strong all year, but they only scored 16 goals in their first 18 games. In their last five matches, they’ve hit the back of the net 10 times. That’s nearly 40 percent of their season total of 26.
Seattle’s scoring run just so happened to coincide with Ruidiaz’s arrival. And while the Peruvian international has just one goal and one assist in his five appearances for the Sounders, he’s undeniably changed the dynamic of their attack.
Ruidiaz’s ability to stretch the field with speed was something Seattle had lacked since Jordan Morris went down with an ACL tear in the Concacaf Champions League in February. His pace keeps opposing center backs deep, which opens plenty of midfield space for playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro. The Uruguayan is taking full advantage. In the five games Ruidiaz has played, Lodeiro has four goals and two assists, almost half of his combined total of 13 goals and assists this season. Additionally, Alonso’s return has allowed Roldan to move from holding midfield to the wing, where his own hard-charging runs open even more space for Lodeiro to operate in.
“Nico has had much more space in my opinion in the last five or so games because of our vertical running,” said Roldan. “Hopefully that continues because I feel like it’s been pretty successful the last couple of games.”
The attack has improved, but Roldan readily admitted that it’s not yet at full capacity. Despite their increased goal output, Seattle have mostly remained in line with their season averages in shots, shots on goal, chances created and expected goals during their five-game winning streak. Four of their 10 goals during that span have been via penalty or set piece. They’re better, but they’re not yet exactly free-flowing in the final third.
For now, that’s fine. Seattle remain stout defensively, with their 26 goals conceded second in MLS only to the New York Red Bulls. As long as that remains the case and as long as they stay healthy, they don’t feel like they need to have a juggernaut of an attack to stack results. They think they can grind out wins, make a good run at the postseason and, if they get there, take a crack at a third-straight MLS Cup appearance with a core that could look dramatically different in 2019.
“Honestly there’s not one thing that I can just point out and say, ‘yeah, it’s this,’ because it’s so complicated. There were injuries, there were new faces, there was new technical staff… MLS Cup hangover, people were tired after Champions League, there were so many things going on and it’s hard to point out one thing, but the thing that I can say is when we have guys back from injury and we’re playing consistently with our lineups, I think we’re in a good spot,” said Roldan.
“We’ve been successful these last couple of games because we’ve had a strong lineup that has been much more consistent than ever before, and when you have guys that are competing together week in and week out, I think for us specifically we’ve been more successful for that reason.”