The Seattle Sounders shocked the league Tuesday, pulling out a 3-1 victory over LAFC at Banc of California Stadium on the strength of two clinical finishes from the Peruvian striker, sending the Sounders to their third MLS Cup in four years.
Ruidiaz might not yet be thought of as one of the high-profile Designated Players in MLS due to the extensive time he missed in his first full season in the league with a heel injury and extensive international duty that limited him to 20 starts.
But with his dominant display on Tuesday, Ruidiaz made his case for his status among the league’s elite talents and clutch performers.
“Which part? The defending or the attacking?” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said rhetorically, when he was asked about the exploits of his striker. “He was very, very good. Worth every cent we paid for him.”
This was exactly the type of performance the Sounders hoped they would get from Ruidiaz when they signed him to a Designated Player contract midway through last season.
The 29-year-old was already known for putting up gaudy numbers during his time in Liga MX, but also for his big-game chops and scoring goals – often in opposing stadiums – in the most important moments of big games. Tuesday’s performance was evidence of that, and it wasn’t just about the pair of goals, Schmetzer said.
“His defending late in the game, his defending middle of the game, whatever we asked him to do, he did,” he said. “And that’s what I appreciate about Raul, he’s a very team-oriented player and I love that. Sometimes forwards, sometimes they can be a little selfish. But he’s a team player and he did everything he could to make sure the team won today.”
Ruidiaz wasn’t the only Sounders DP to help spearhead Tuesday’s win.
Midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro scored Seattle’s other goal, giving him seven goals in 16 Audi MLS Cup Playoff matches. But it was also a versatile effort from the crafty Uruguayan, who played his normal role as the Sounders’ chief facilitator while maintaining his customary other-wordly defensive work rate.
Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said it’s what he’s come to expect from his pair of big-money teammates, who were crucially lethal with the looks they had in a match where Seattle knew chances might be tough to come by against an star-studded, Supporters’ Shield-winning LAFC squad.
“We had very few opportunities and we had to capitalize on those,” Roldan said. “At the end, we could have scored another one, but that was because LAFC was pushing forward and opening up a lot of space. But our DPs get paid big bucks to score those goals. We capitalized on three shots and, really, when you’re up 3-1 you just want to defend for your life and make it as difficult as possible for LAFC to score another goal.
“The many times we’ve been to MLS Cup now, it’s been off grit, it’s been off winning in different ways,” he added. “Today, we won in a different way. We locked down defense, we scored on our few opportunities. In other games, maybe we played pretty. But the fact of the matter is we knew it was going to be a tough opponent away from home and we adjusted accordingly. It was overall just a fantastic performance.”