SEATTLE – When the Seattle Sounders entered this past three-week FIFA international break, coach Brian Schmetzer expected a different roster upon return to MLS play. But the unexpected availability of striker Raul Ruidiaz brings a different challenge – can the club retain momentum as the top team in the league?
Ruidiaz was called up by his Peru national team to compete in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers earlier this month. He appeared as a substitute for 30 minutes of a 3-0 loss to Colombia and was not selected for the Copa America tournament that kicked off Sunday.
Whatever struggles the Peruvian has on the international stage disappear in MLS. Ruidiaz is second in the race for the league’s Golden Boot award with six goals. His performance has helped the Sounders (5-0-3) open with their best start in franchise history.
Ruidiaz is training with the Sounders and should be available for selection when the club opens its summer MLS slate with a road match against the Los Angeles Galaxy (5-2-0) on Saturday.
Here are five storylines to watch as the Sounders aim to remain atop MLS:
Gains and losses
Ruidiaz’s return keeps the Sounders’ offense strong. They lead the league in goal differential (plus-11) and are second in scores (14).
But the Sounders’ defense is also key to matching Nashville SC (2-0-5) as the only unbeaten teams left. And the Sounders will be without their middle man on the defensive line in center back Xavier Arreaga. Ecuador called up the defender for Copa America, and if the national team advances out of group play Arreaga could be unavailable until July.
MLS veteran Shane O’Neill and new signee Abdoulaye Cissoko will likely jockey for the position to replace Arreaga. There’s also a slim chance the Sounders sign a player during the summer window to bulk up the defense.
Speaking of losses …
Co-captains midfielder Nico Lodeiro (knee) and keeper Stefan Frei (knee) remain out after setbacks in recovering from the injuries. In an interview with media earlier this month, Schmetzer couldn’t offer a timetable for when either would rejoin training.
Midfielder Josh Atencio (quad), who replaced Lodeiro in the lineup to open the season, is back in partial training but likely won’t return to the lineup until Wednesday’s match against Real Salt Lake at Lumen Field.
Kelyn Rowe has featured in the midfield the past six matches and played well alongside Joao Paulo. But midfielder Cristian Roldan picked up most of Lodeiro’s typical duties and could also be out if called up by the U.S. Men’s National Team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup that runs July 10-Aug. 1.
MLS will break July 9-16 for the opening round of the tournament. The Sounders have four matches during the remaining portion of Gold Cup.
The Sounders haven’t played a match since a draw against Austin FC on May 30. Schmetzer gave the team and his technical staff a six-day break, returning this week for standard training sessions.
Can the Sounders benefit from the rest? They’ll need it with five matches in the upcoming three weeks.
Behind the numbers
True, the Sounders are unbeaten, but the club’s past two matches resulted in draws and showed vulnerabilities within the new formation. Schmetzer said those individual and team-wide inconsistencies were worked on during the break.
Seattle still hasn’t conceded a goal within the run of play. That’s not only a tribute to the switch to three center backs, but also the emergence of right wingback Alex Roldan. He’s shown skill with his crosses and is tied with Yeimar Gomez Andrade to lead the league with 22 interceptions.
The defense will have to adjust to Arreaga’s absence. There could also be another change in goal if Schmetzer decides to give Spencer Richey a chance. Stefan Cleveland replaced Frei the past three matches, the Sounders finishing 1-0-2. The one goal Cleveland conceded was on a penalty kick against Atlanta United.
It’s unlikely the Sounders go an entire season without an opponent scoring during the flow of the game. Yet, staying strong on defense will be key in defending their Western Conference championship title.
More to cheer
The Sounders are transitioning to full-capacity seating throughout the lower bowl at Lumen Field for the upcoming three home matches. Proof of vaccination is required in the sections until Washington state fully reopens.
They began their return to a traditional fan experience with 7,000 fans for the MLS opener in April. There were 12,895 in attendance for the goalless draw against Austin on May 30.
The Sounders hope to have all seating areas open for the July 25 match against Sporting Kansas City at Lumen Field.
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