SEATTLE – There’s a series that epitomizes the dynamism on the soccer field between Raul Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris and Nico Lodeiro. The flash of brilliance happened in the 80th minute of the Sounders’ Major League Soccer playoff opener against Los Angeles FC.
Lodeiro lofted the ball from deep in the midfield over five LAFC defenders to land at the feet of Ruidiaz, who then instinctively paused his dribble and tapped it ahead to a sprinting Morris for a jazzy, left-foot finish. Without fans in the stands due to COVID-related restrictions, the silence during the series at Lumen Field emphasized the unspoken connection between the players.
Precision. Vision. Flare. A trifecta that’s hard to find in a player – let alone three on the same roster.
It seems magical how the trio has become the most lethal attack in MLS this season. They were named to the league’s Best XI, matching the Philadelphia Union for most players on the team. And as the postseason stretches on, the trio continues to break records while challenging pundits to find new ways to describe their harmony in creating scores.
In reality, the dazzle is quite boring. The Sounders share a love of the mundane – from the equipment managers and data specialists to the players. When the singular focus on improving in training is combined with execution at their best on game day, the Sounders are one of the greatest shows in soccer.
On Saturday, the Sounders and their star trio will look to do anything but the mundane, as they take on the Columbus Crew at 5:30 p.m. inside MAPFRE Stadium looking to capture a second straight MLS Cup title. It’s Seattle’s fourth trip to the MLS Cup title in the past five years, and the second with the trio of Morris, Ruidiaz and Lodeiro headlining.
Last season, Ruidiaz provided the opening assist on a Kelvin Leerdam goal and the final score in Seattle’s MLS Cup 3-1 victory over Toronto FC in front of a record CenturyLink Field crowd of nearly 70,000. Lodeiro had an assist in the 76th minute that former teammate Victor Rodriguez sliced through two Reds defenders for a goal.
“It’s not magic,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of the chemistry between Ruidiaz, Morris and Lodeiro. “The one thing that they have in common is their commitment to the team and their teammates. That’s what makes them so strong. All three are humble and they will all tell you that they’d trade that Best XI award away for another MLS Cup. They prefer that the team does well rather than have the individual accolades. That’s what flows through all of them and makes them a real potent trio.”
Connecting to lead Seattle to back-to-back Western Conference championships wasn’t exactly a given.
Morris, a Mercer Island, Washington, native, was plucked from the soccer fields of Redmond and molded into one of the Sounders’ top players as a homegrown signee. But the left winger missed all of Seattle’s 2018 season after suffering a torn ACL in the opening leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
As Morris dealt with mental and physical setbacks rehabbing the injury, the Sounders announced the signing of Ruidiaz as a designated player in June 2018. The Peruvian striker immediately bonded with Lodeiro to become a stealthy goal scorer, helping the Sounders advance to the postseason where Seattle lost in the opening round to Portland.
“He can kind of float under the radar for 50 minutes, 60 minutes, whatever, but you can never forget that player,” Sounders keeper Stefan Frei said of Ruidiaz. “He needs one tiny little split second, tiny little chance and he’ll make something out of thin air. The way he does that, that totally reminds me of Oba (striker Obafemi Martins).
“We will be kind of having a frustrating game and you wouldn’t remember Oba was on the pitch sometimes and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, we’ll play a long ball to him in Colorado and he’d do a 180-pirouette around the defender and slot one in. We’re like, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’ Raul is very capable of doing that as well. It’s a skill to have. I don’t want to say he does it on purpose, to try and lull an opponent to sleep by floating around. But it’s really nice to know that he can muster something out of thin air and just needs a tiny bit of space, that’s it.”
Ruidiaz’s ability to finish – recording nine goals and six assists in nine career MLS playoff matches – meant Morris was cemented at starting left wing. In his return last season, Morris won the league’s Comeback Player of the Year by scoring 10 goals with a career-best seven assists.
Morris matched his goal total this season (10) and bumped up his assists with eight, four going to Ruidiaz.
“He’s just a special finisher,” Morris said of Ruidiaz. “And he’s just a great guy. We’re lucky here in Seattle. We have a great locker room, there’s no egos. It’s all about the team. When your big players are like that (team-first mentality), it helps. The general group is just a special one. It’s a big reason why we’re here as well, just the camaraderie that this team has.”
Teammates credit Ruidiaz for part of the jovial vibe felt in the locker room. He’s often the clubhouse DJ and is the first to get up and dance.
The playful nature is an extension of what’s spotted on the training field. Teammates regularly share stories about Lodeiro wanting to win every drill while Ruidiaz and Morris want to score every ball. The trio simply loves to score, Lodeiro tallying 10 career postseason assists – the most among active MLS players.
Columbus, however, is a club that enjoys denying goals. The Crew haven’t conceded a goal in their past 210 postseason minutes, defeating the New England Revolution 1-0 for the Eastern Conference championship on Sunday.
Crew defender Jonathan Mensah, the team captain, was also named to MLS’s Best XI. He led the league in blocks (30) and clearances (114) this season. Columbus was second in MLS in fewest goals allowed this season at 21.
“We’re ready for whatever comes our way,” Lodeiro said. “We obviously want the games to go our way and to score a lot of goals, but that’s not always the case. The example is (Western Conference championship win against) Minnesota. We were able to come back within 15 minutes, but that doesn’t always happen and not always a guarantee. So, we can’t ever let our guard down.”
There’s no quit in the Sounders, as evidence by their 3-2 comeback victory over Minnesota on Monday. It’s a trait that stems from the star trio. No matter the score, they never relax until a game is won or season is complete, even when playing amid the added adversity that 2020 has brought.
Ruidiaz scored the equalizer in the 89th minute to help the Sounders win the conference title. They had a short celebration where they posed for photos with the trophy on the field and got rowdy with champagne in the locker room. By midnight, it was forgotten.
The Sounders traveled to Columbus on Wednesday and the team was back to training Thursday. Afterward, players ran through shooting drills with Ruidiaz in the box making every shot, prompting Morris to comment to teammate Brad Smith that Ruidiaz “doesn’t miss.”
“We want to achieve this title one more time, but we need to take things step by step,” Ruidiaz said of winning back-to-back MLS Cups. Repeating would be a first since the Los Angeles Galaxy won in 2011-12. “Nobody takes away the motivation and our desire to win. To me and to the entire group, we think similar. We want to win. We want to give it all.”
It sounds ordinary but the trio likely will again make the mundane extraordinary.
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