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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Analysis: What needs to happen for struggling Sounders to make another MLS Cup run?

Portland Timbers forward Nathan Fogaca scores a goal in the 76th minute during an MLS match against the Seattle Sounders at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon on Saturday, April 15, 2023.  (Tribune News Service)
By Jayda Evans Seattle Times

TUKWILA – Up until last week, questions about the Sounders’ lackluster performance of late would be silenced by one fact: The team was second in MLS’ Western Conference standings.

Players, coaches and even Craig Waibel, the club’s general manager and chief soccer officer, have noted the team’s place in the standings to dismiss questionable results and lack of roster moves. Waibel did so again after a 2-0 road loss to San Jose last week.

Well, the same cracks in the team’s game plan showed up Saturday against FC Dallas. But this time the draw – that should’ve been a win – slipped the Sounders to fourth in the standings.

It’s finally time to discuss.

Yes, the Sounders (10-6-8) are five points back from St. Louis City’s lead in the West. The Rave Green are also seven points from dropping out of the expanded playoff picture, which would be the second consecutive season without a berth.

Grumble if you like, but with 10 matches left in the season, the Sounders have real issues that need to be addressed if they’re going to win the MLS Cup as planned. The league halted regular-season competitions for the retooled Leagues Cup, a departure the Sounders need to answer some questions before the final stretch of MLS play.

Here are three keys to making that happen.

Hello Cristian, we’re about to win again

It was evident 20 minutes into Saturday’s match that midfielder Cristian Roldan is a key ingredient in Seattle’s success this season. He’s been limited to 10 matches (nine starts) due to a concussion along with U.S. men’s national team duty for the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

The Sounders are 5-1-4 with Cristian in the lineup.

Naturally, Roldan plays well with his brother Alex on the right wing. But his awareness to fill gaps, chemistry with multiple players on the attack, ability to make his own runs and determination to finish are desperately needed.

Cristian hit the post with an attempt against Dallas in the 22nd minute that was a sweet play with winger Leo Chu. Dallas’ own goal in the 32nd minute was another credit to Roldan’s effort. He is that magic the Sounders need to keep healthy to give the team a chance in any match they play.

The next FIFA window is in September, so Roldan and forward Jordan Morris could be called up for a pair of friendlies. The international duty wouldn’t be a conflict because the Sounders don’t have a match scheduled during the break.

“It’s not enough to play well and feel like you deserve three points, you just need to win those points and grind out games,” Roldan said Saturday. “We have to find the right balance of being tough to beat, not conceding goals we shouldn’t and playing the pretty football that we’re used to seeing.”

Payment due for money guys

Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz left the training pitch upset Tuesday, according to coach Brian Schmetzer, because the player is tired of being modified. The medical staff hopes limiting Ruidiaz decreases his chances of having a setback with past hamstring injuries.

The Dallas match was the first full 90 for Ruidiaz since the FIFA men’s Club World Cup match in Morocco in February. Ruidiaz had two shots Saturday. He leads the Sounders with 16 shots on goal despite only playing 13 MLS matches with six starts.

“You can see Raul wants to score,” Schmetzer said. “He’s almost to a point where it’s driving him nuts. He didn’t like the fact that he had to be modified at training, he wants to stay out there and practice his craft.”

The Peruvian international has four goals this season; not good for a designated player. The other DPs in Albert Rusnak and Nico Lodeiro aren’t any better, although Lodeiro is tied with Chu in assists (eight).

Of the five matches where the Sounders scored three or more goals, Ruidiaz wasn’t part of three (Colorado, Kansas City, St. Louis). Should he be a “super-sub” and the team return to Chu on the wing and Morris, who has a team-high nine goals, up top?

Does Chu need more work on playing the ball low to Ruidiaz to keep both in the starting lineup and put Lodeiro on the bench as Schmetzer did Saturday? The decision was explained as giving the club captain a rest due to a three-match week.

Lodeiro has repeatedly stated he’ll play any role to stay in the starting lineup. That’s translated to being more restricted in the area he covers with Rusnak.

The conversation would be different if Lodeiro had more than one goal this season, too. But that’s also the point. The Sounders need goals and maybe interchanging playmakers in Rusnak and Lodeiro is better than continuing to mash them together. It could also help in not making the team predictable in their attacking movements.

“Someone needs to break the ice,” Schmetzer said.

Find some consistency

The return of Joao Paulo from a season-ending knee injury last year is a difference-maker. The team is at minimum getting a draw in matches they would’ve lost last season. Now, there’s a lack of consistency that needs to be resolved. With 10 MLS matches left, the Sounders won’t be buoyed by other teams struggling. Once Leagues Cup is over, there will be a run to the playoffs and Seattle doesn’t want to get left behind.