When the Seattle Sounders signed Albert Rusnák from Real Salt Lake this past offseason, it made waves around Major League Soccer, and for good reason. Never before had an in-his-prime Designated Player left for another team within the league via free agency, and Rusnák in particular was joining an already loaded Sounders roster that had very little turnover from the year before.
The expectations for Rusnák coming into 2022 were understandably high. He was coming off an 11-goal, 11-assist performance last season, one of just two players in MLS to record double digits in both goals and assists. As an attacking midfielder, he scored 41 goals and 39 assists in almost 150 matches with RSL after joining from Dutch side FC Groningen in 2017. He also has 34 caps with the Slovakia national team.
What’s great about Rusnák, though, is that he doesn’t need to be the guy on this Sounders team. He has plenty of weapons around him, and Head Coach Brian Schmetzer has recently turned to him as a possession-building facilitator from deeper in central midfield. That formula has worked in spades, as he is able to connect lines while also playing the pass before the pass. He’s in the 95th percentile in passing accuracy, and his technical acumen on the ball and ability to relieve pressure has turned the Sounders into an absolute juggernaut on the break.
“His ability to dictate the tempo of the game with [João Paulo is great],” said Schmetzer. “We were turning into a transition team. We defend a little deeper, not always by design, and Jordan [Morris] and Cristian [Roldan] would get out [on the counterattack]…Now we’re actually a good possession team too.”
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Rusnák has been operating as a nominal No. 8 — he started several matches as a playmaking No. 10 while Nicolás Lodeiro was out and will likely fill in there several times this season — and it might just be where he fits in the best. In that spot, he raises the level of everyone on the pitch.
“I really like the way it’s going,” said GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey. “[Albert] and Nico and JP are starting to figure each other out. It’s a really good complement of skills because all of those guys are really good on the ball. Nico runs all over the place and creates overloads side to side. Then you have pace and power in [Cristian] Roldan and Morris, and then you have your lethal finisher in [Raúl] Ruidíaz. So, we really think that front six is a fabulous group, and it’s only going to get better.”
Individual matches also call for different playing styles. Against Minnesota United, he operated higher up the field and was more goal-dangerous. In the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League Semifinals against New York City FC, a match in which he still opened his scoring account, he sat deeper and broke NYCFC’s press while also making late-arriving runs into the box.
“As a player, you have to feel and sense what the game needs and where the space is,” said Rusnák.
Seattle has plenty of firepower in central midfield. João Paulo is a reigning MLS MVP finalist and Best XI defensive midfielder. Lodeiro is one of the top five playmakers in the league. And Josh Atencio, Obed Vargas and Danny Leyva are budding talents. But Rusnák in that role increases exponentially what this group is capable of accomplishing, even if his numbers on the score sheet don’t always reflect how influential he can be.
The Sounders will need Rusnák’s best if they hope to capture their first Concacaf Champions League title when they take on Liga MX’s Pumas UNAM starting on April 27 in Mexico City (7:30 p.m. PT; FS1, TUDN, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360AM) before coming home to Lumen Field for Leg Two in the biggest match in club history on May 4 (7 p.m. PT; FS1, TUDN, 93.3 KJR FM, El Rey 1360AM | TICKETS).